Intro. [Recording date: June 5, 2017.]
Russ Roberts: Tom Ricks's latest book, Churchill and Orwell, is our topic for today.... Now, at first glance, Churchill and Orwell seemed like an unlikely pairing. What did you see in their lives and work that encouraged you to write this book and put them together?
Thomas Ricks: Well, for me it actually began with a feeling I was sort of leaving journalism, I guess, becoming a full time book writer. And, I think it's part of my farewell to journalism: I went back and started reading a lot of 20th century journalists, serious[?] about who would be remembered and who will be forgotten--and most of them will because forgotten. And I went back and started with H. L. Mencken, and found Mencken's style anachronistic. Politics, really wrong. And his understanding of America very limited. So, I turned to S. J. Perelman--found him not funny. I turned to E. B. White, and found E. B. White's prose style extremely good, but his concerns kind of did not, not to my interests at all, it he [?] today. Hemingway--just found him a blowhard. And then I picked up Orwell--and George Orwell just stood out. It was such a fresh, new voice. There's a guy who died in 1950, yet he sounded like he was writing today in his prose style. And his concerns were the concerns of today: How do you preserve the freedom of the individual in an era of an intrusive state? And even more intrusive cooperation? What is freedom of expression? How do you define it? How do you preserve it? And that really intrigued me. And I went back and kind of re-read a lot of him, re-read his letters and diaries, which I'd not read. And as I was reading it occurred to me, 'Wow! This guy is kind of a left-wing parallel to another hero of mine, Winston Churchill.' And I began to see similarities in their points of view, even if, as you say, they are extraordinarily different people.
Russ Roberts: Their lives are entertaining to read about. I've read a lot about Churchill in WWII, and despite that I really enjoyed your account of his contributions in WWII and in our lives today. Your book is really an entertaining read. I couldn't put it down. It's very clear that Churchill is an important figure in the 20th century and today. Why is Orwell of equal importance? What's important about both of them for someone today who perhaps doesn't know as much history as someone else?
Thomas Ricks: What's extraordinary to me about Churchill is how he almost single-handedly in 1940 saved the West. He's the only person, I think, who as serving as Prime Minister would have absolutely refused to negotiate with Nazi Germany. Almost every other figure we know of at that point who could have been Prime Minister would have been inclined to a peace settlement; and the West would have been different than we know it today. A peace settlement probably would have given the Nazis free hand in Europe in exchange for Britain being allowed to keep its empire. Instead he said, 'Absolutely not. We are going to fight'--and fight, he says it explicitly upon the entry of the war, 'We are going to fight for the right of the individual to exist.' And Orwell, in the wake of that, comes along and explains the Post-War world, and explains what our concerns need to be. What strikes me today is that Orwell still feels like a contemporary figure. I maintained a Google search, a Google Alert on his name when I was writing the book. And every day there seemed 20 or 30, sometimes 40 or 50 Google hits for people writing about him around the world. In fact, I think he's almost been liberated by the end of the Cold War--people have come to see that he was not necessarily a Cold-War author, and that his books, especially Animal Farm and 1984, wherever[?] there was a governmental abuse, wherever people are in jail, saying, 'No, I demand my right to perceive facts myself and not simply told whatever line[?] the government is handing out.'
Russ Roberts: Let's talk about Churchill's opposition and unwillingness to negotiate that you mention, because I thought about it when reading your book, and you of course deal in passing with Chamberlain's 1938 Munich Agreement. And it's now fashionable, of course, to mock Chamberlain as an appeaser and a fool, because he came back and said, 'We have peace in our time.' But I think it's very hard for Americans, and it may be even hard for people in the United Kingdom today to remember what the mood in the United Kingdom was at the time. I looked up the numbers. The United Kingdom lost 700,000 people in WWI. That's deaths. It's not wounded. It's almost 2% of their population. So, it's the equivalent of America losing 6 million people in a war today. It's really--it's hard for us to realize the lack of enthusiasm that the British public had to fight Nazism, and to stand up to it. And that's totally understandable. In France, similarly, which had even more deaths, about the same, population--their surrender, which, again, Churchill and others have criticized and bemoaned. But I think it's hard for us to appreciate how people felt, that just 20 years earlier had been the most devastating and horrific experience of national loss up to that point. And Churchill somehow was immune to that. Churchill somehow rallied his people to fight when they really weren't in the mood. And that to me is his incredible achievement. Do you have any thoughts on why and how he was able to do that?
Thomas Ricks: Well, that's a two-part question: first about the nature of appeasement; second about the nature of Churchill. You are right that nobody wanted war. The question was not: Does Churchill want war and Chamberlain want peace? The question was: What is the best way to avoid war? And it was observed that Chamberlain, by simply seeking to avoid war at all cost, virtually guaranteed that it would occur.
Russ Roberts: Yup.
Thomas Ricks: Had Hitler been confronted earlier, say, at the time of the taking of the Rhineland, he almost certainly would have had to back down. He had no military to speak of at that point. England and France combined were much stronger than Germany was in 1935. But Germany was re-arming. And what really made Germany much stronger was appeasement. Under appeasement, Hitler was allowed to take the Rhineland; and then you have the Anschluss that gives him Austria. And finally, they give him a chunk of Czechoslovakia. The Austrian gold was extremely important to the German Treasury. Even more important were the Czech arms factories they gained. And most important, because of the demographics of WWI, was all the people they gained in the Rhineland, Austria, Czechoslovakia. Every time Germany took another country, it gained the labor and the military enrollment of the populations there. So, Chamberlain, by backing away from war, steadily gives Hitler more and more, but even makes him a stronger opponent. The striking thing about what Churchill does in 1940 is he tells the people the truth. And they find this oddly reassuring. All his famous speeches--the phrases that we remember today, except for the Iron Curtain speech--are in 1940: 'This was their finest hour,' 'Blood, sweat, and tears.'
Russ Roberts: 'Fight them on the beaches.'
Thomas Ricks: Well, 'Fight them on the beaches' is interesting because that is a devastatingly honest speech. It basically lays out a fighting retreat: 'We will fight them on the beaches. We will fight them on landing fields. We will fight them cities. We will fight them in the hills.' What he's saying is: We will maintain a guerilla warfare to these people. We're not just going to give up once they take London; we're just going to keep on fighting. And, he also uses this phrase: 'Never, never, never give up.' And I think that really stiffens the British. They realize that they foolishly backed into war, with this policy of appeasement, and Churchill was right all along. He's the sole British leader who really has much credibility at this point. And he really uses it. But he's in a very weak position in 1940. A lot of people thought he would be an interim leader: that he'd be out by the end of summer. And he might even be dead. Joseph Kennedy, father of JFK (John F. Kennedy) and the American Ambassador to London at the time, was a defeatist. He kept on saying, 'The Germans are going to win.' In the summer of 1940, he predicted that Hitler would be seen in Buckingham Palace by the fall.
Russ Roberts: Yeah; and as you point out, I think a lot of people assumed Churchill would be tossed for his belligerence, intractability, stubbornness. It could have turned out--
Thomas Ricks: And perhaps hanged, by either the Germans or by a British government collaborating, like Vichy France did, with the Germans; and probably a Fascist British government led by Oswald Mosley.
Russ Roberts: We'll get to Orwell soon. While we're on Churchill, I want to stick with him for a minute. One of the interesting parts of your book that I had not been sufficiently aware of was the class issues that Churchill either refused to play to given his own background; and especially around the Battle of Britain, both in terms of the damage, where the damage was done from the Nazi air attacks and the source of the British defense--the RAF, the Royal Air Force--where that came from. And the feeling that the aristocrats and the upper crust weren't doing their share; and too much of the brunt was falling on others. And that Churchill was very aware of that. Talk about those forces.
Thomas Ricks: It's fascinating to me. Britain, even today, is the most class-ridden society in all of Europe. But it was even more stratified by class back then. And you are right: The working class disproportionately bears the impact of the German bombing, because East London and Southeast London are being hit very hard. Much harder than West London--where the rich lived. And in addition, a lot of the rich had decamped to their country homes. Meanwhile, in the fighting in the air, over their heads, the British aircraft are piloted overwhelmingly by the sons of the middle class. The RAF--the Royal Air Force--was kind of disdained. It wasn't the Navy. It wasn't the Army. It was this new force that kind of had an air of petroleum and engine lubricants to it. It was seen as not quite done. These people were a little bit like chauffeurs up in the air. And at the end of the Battle of Britain, Churchill asked that the numbers be pulled together; and said, 'My God. The aristocratic class was not present in this battle.' Very few of these pilots were from the upper class. 'These are the middle class,' he says. And, to quote him, 'And they deserve to run the country, now.' And it really struck me, reading that, that Margaret Thatcher was his heir in so many ways, that Thatcher--the daughter of a middle class or lower middle class grocer really inherited the mantle that Churchill described during the Battle of Britain.
Russ Roberts: I think I read it in Manchester's biography that Churchill never really ever touched a tube of toothpaste? Someone always squeezed the tube for him. He led a rather pampered existence. He's notable--
Thomas Ricks: At one point, somebody asked his wife about him taking a bus. He'd never taken a bus in his life.
Russ Roberts: No. For sure. I'm not sure he ever drove anywhere in his life. He probably was chauffeured pretty regularly without his youth and adulthood. He is also a man of incredible refined tastes. He is famous during the war for, when he goes to really unpleasant places, he still has first-rate cigars and wine and scotch--his Johnny Walker. And yet, somehow, this aristocratic man became the voice of the people. How did he pull that off?
Thomas Ricks: You're right. Churchill evolved [?] such a [?] figure. The fact that he insists on wearing pale silk underwear his whole life is just striking. At one point, WWII, he's in Cairo, staying at the British Embassy. And at the breakfast table, he asked his hostess for a carafe of white wine--with breakfast. She raised her eyebrows, slightly; and he says, 'Don't worry, Madam. I've already had two whisky sodas.' He--I think he pulled this off because he is not--while he may be from an aristocratic background, he's not a gentleman. He doesn't hem and haw. He doesn't shade[?shave?] the truth. He tends to tell people quite bluntly what he thinks. And I also think it's [?] him: he totally lacked empathy. I don't think an empathetic person, a person sensitive to other people's feelings, could have made it through WWII--through the crushing conditions. Remember, they were in the war a couple of years longer than America was, [?] directly--
Russ Roberts: And with nothing good, with almost nothing good to show for it, for so long. Just was defeat after defeat, in the early days.
Thomas Ricks: Yeah! Defeat after defeat. And 50,000 British civilians are killed during the war by bombs and rockets and fires and buildings collapsing on them. I think about this, these days, when I watch the terrorist attacks. These are people who, only a couple of generations ago, were able to deal with enormous suffering. More British civilians died in combat in WWII than died in the British Navy. I think there's something in the British culture that did enable them to make it through this. And Churchill resonated with that. A kind of making his stubbornness, and really, his pig-headedness, a virtue. And it was a virtue during the war. Unfortunately, it was not a virtue before the war or after the war. Which was one reason he, I think, was thrown out of office by the British voter, as soon as WWII ends in Europe; and why his second term as Prime Minister in the early 1950s was a disaster--just a train wreck--that most historians just avert their eyes from.
Russ Roberts: So, I want to encourage listeners who have trips to London planned in their future to visit the Churchill War Rooms, which I've been able to go to twice. It's my favorite thing in London. It won't be your favorite thing, listener, necessarily.
Thomas Ricks: And which Margaret Thatcher set out to re-open and make a museum of. And what this is, is, the quarters that Churchill and his staff used during the War, below ground--I think it's below the Treasury building, correct? Or near it.
Thomas Ricks: Yeah. And, it's striking that Churchill remains in London throughout the War--when a lot of the aristocrats had fled. There was [?] distinction. But the aristocracy--a lot of it met a real contempt for Churchill. He was seen as kind of a piratical figure, a half-breed, because he was half-American. There was a lot of distrust among the Tories, who really did not see him as a gentleman or a true conservative.
Russ Roberts: What struck me in those rooms--and they are just--it's beautifully preserved, and it's really well done--is how spartan they are. And I come back to this man and his silk underwear and his fine wines: it's very plain. It's strikingly plain. Was that intentional? Was the world just a poorer place? Did you have that thought? I'm sure you've been there.
Thomas Ricks: I haven't been there. I don't know why.
Russ Roberts: You need to.
Thomas Ricks: I just haven't been to London lately. I did walk out Orwell's Barcelona recently, and Orwell's Paris, actually. I think it's partly so plain because I think it was an unused station on the British Tube--the subway system in London. And that became the basis of the bunker, using that. And so I think it was pretty utilitarian to begin with. And also, there simply wasn't time, and resources, to make it more luxurious. I'm sure that if he had his preferences, you know, the walls would have been wainscoted--would have looked like an 18th century man-o'-war.
Russ Roberts: Well, it's very moving to go see them, because you realize how much hung in the balance there. And, there's a Map Room there, sort of a central headquarter piece of the bunker, where basically the lights didn't go out for 7 years. Again, it makes you realize just how, what a horrible slog that war was for so many people.
Thomas Ricks: I also think Churchill probably didn't see what was in front of him, a lot, when he was in that bunker. Much of the war was taking place inside his head. This was his great achievement, I think, as a war leader: defies rallying the British people with having an overall strategic conception of the war. The big picture. Oddly enough, the place where he explains this best was in his essay on painting and why he loves painting. And he says, 'When you are painting a picture, you are working on small details, but you must constantly keep in mind the big picture of the entire painting.' And it's a good description of how he approached war. I think he saw WWII as a giant canvas that was to be his masterpiece. And he's constantly dealing with small details in a very effective way. But, his great achievement as a leader was having an overall strategic concept. For example, the sense that it's always better to do something than to do nothing, because it throws the enemy off the initiative. So, even if they got thrown out of Norway, in doing so, the Royal Navy and the Royal Airforce destroyed enough German ships that it helps prevent German landings in England in the following months. His other greatest strategic conception was, 'I can stop the Germans from defeating me, but I can't win the war unless the Americans come in.' And, from the day he becomes Prime Minister, he's intent on finding a way to pull the Americans into the War.
Russ Roberts: Yeah; that clearly was--evolved--and he had a lot of goofy ideas; he had a lot of pet projects. Some of them turned out to be fabulously useful. Some of them probably were a terrible waste of resources. And you talk about how--it's Alan Brooke, right?
Thomas Ricks: Yes.
Russ Roberts: What's his title? He's his right-hand man, but I don't know what he is--Chief of Staff?
Thomas Ricks: Chief General Alan Brooke, and later becomes Lord Alan Brooke.
Russ Roberts: And how frustrating it was for Brooke to work with him. And yet, clearly the biggest single most important thing was to get America into the War. And Churchill focused on that, relentlessly. And I think you demystify or de-romanticize a little bit his relationship with FDR (Franklin Delano Roosevelt)--which I think it's easy to romanticize their friendship. It was really a marriage of tremendous convenience--certainly for Churchill.
Thomas Ricks: And, as a [?] point of that, the only peaceful transfer of power of hegemonic power in world history, from England to America. But a very fiction-filled relationship. Churchill's good achievement is that he manages that relationship with FDR so well that the are able to work together. It was not a classic friendship, but I do think it was a true wartime comradeship.
Russ Roberts: Well, they clearly respected each other, I think, at least as political leaders; who knows what else.
Thomas Ricks: Well, two narcissistic monologuists who find they eventually have to shut up and listen to each other.
Russ Roberts: Well, I want to--let's talk about that a little, because you mention the lack of empathy. I am reminded when I read about Churchill, sometimes--and this may strike some listeners or you as strange--but reminded of Steve Jobs, a very difficult person to work for. A little bit self-centered; a little bit focused on what they think they know is the only way to go. And yet despite that, they inspire tremendous loyalty in the people who work for them; and they work very hard. Again, in the Churchill War Rooms, you can't ignore the fact--you can't help but notice the fact that you get to listen on your earphones to the diaries of some of the people who worked there. And he treated them, you know, like dogs. He made them work relentlessly, because he thought Western civilization was at stake. And he was onto something there. And, despite that, they were so eager to serve him--for his charisma? I don't know. But it reminded me of Jobs in that way.
Thomas Ricks: Well I think--it's a good analogy to Jobs, because Orwell and Churchill were failures most of their lives. Most of the things they did, most of the time, failed. And I think that makes them very human, more human than a lot of our so-called heroes. Because all of us fail every day to be who we want to be or to succeed in certain ways. And none of us get out of here alive--I mean, ultimately, all humans fail at the end of their lives. So, I think that aspect of it generally resonates. But also, you are not going to innovate, you are not going to surprise your competition if you are not trying innovation constantly; and innovation by definition is going to fail most of the time. So it's sort of this flailing around, enormous energy, micromanagement; but it results in occasional blinding success--as Jobs and as Churchill and as Orwell had at the very end of his life.
Russ Roberts: So, let's turn a little bit to Orwell. But as a segue, I want you to talk about the stories that you open the book with, which are really moving: how close both came to death. And had they died, their greatest achievements would not have occurred, and their historical legacy--
Thomas Ricks: They would have been failures.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. So, talk about how they both survived. Two incidents.
Thomas Ricks: Both occurred in the 1930s. The first is Churchill, really isolated within his own party because of this opposition to appeasement, which was the fashionable view, the dominant view, the clever view. He's politically an outcast. He's also a financial wreck: He's lost the small fortune that he made by writing. He's lost in the Stock Market Crash of 1929. He's in America, New York City, doing speaking tours to try to earn some money. And crossing Fifth Avenue, crossing the street, he looks the wrong way--perhaps because of his British habits. He's hit by a car. He's dragged about 30 feet. His scalp is slashed open. Several ribs are broken. And he landed flatly differently--he might have been paralyzed or killed. But he's alive.
Russ Roberts: His reputation at that point would have been of a minor British political figure who messed up in WWI and politically, and--
Thomas Ricks: Who never really recovered and flailed around politically. And died a failure. Orwell, likewise--Orwell is intriguing to me as a writer because he has grown to be so influential today and so important today--spent most of his life unknown except really till his last two books come out in the late 1940s. In the 1930s, he is a minor and very mediocre novelist. His early novels are almost unreadable. I like one of them, Burmese Days, but that's because it's more of a memoir, really, than a novel. His naturalistic, imaginative novels--oddly, I tried to read, because I said, like, 'Tom, you're writing a book about Churchill and Orwell: You better read these.' I tried and I tried, and I find them unreadable: Coming Up for Air, A Clergyman's Daughter, Keep the Aspidistra Flying. But then he goes off, in 1936, to see the Spanish Civil War. Very quickly becomes involved with the fighting. He is associated with the Left, which is to say, with the Republican Government that was fighting the Fascist and Nationalist rebels. He gets involved in street fighting in Barcelona, in which the Soviet-dominated security [?] apparatus is trying to wipe out anti-Soviet Leftists. Remember that the first people the Communists try to kill are not the Right--they are the Socialists. Then he is shot to the throat, in May of 1937. He's on the front line. It's dawn. He is a squad leader, and he is checking out his men. And the sun is behind him, silhouetting him. He is tall. He's over 6 feet. And he's perfectly silhouetted for a sniper from the other side--who fires a bullet. Catches him right in the throat--probably aimed for his head and the bullet probably sank a little bit. And through extraordinary luck, the bullet passes through his throat but doesn't hit the windpipe--which would have killed him--the carotid artery, which would have killed him--or his spine, which would have killed him. He goes and angles between all of these; comes out the [?]. Orwell sinks to the ground, realizing he's been hit. When he's told it's a shot to the throat, he thinks, 'I'm a goner.' He's never heard of anybody surviving that kind of wound. In his first thought, he says conventionally enough that he'll never see his wife again. I mean, he's sorry for that. And his second thought is: 'I will miss this world because after all I get along in it so well.' He goes home, after all this. And he sits down and reads all the British newspapers, Left and Right, about the [?] of the war. And now the great revelation: They are both lying. He'd expected the Right to lie, because he was a Leftists. He's shocked when he finds the Left-wing newspapers are also lying. And, kind of, we think about fake news nowadays: He comes back and he says, 'The news being reported here about what's going on in Spain, is fake.' And that begins his great political transformation, in the same way that Churchill was transformed by his anti-Nazi, anti-appeasement stance throughout the 1930s.
Russ Roberts: Christopher Hitchens on EconTalk, years back--and sadly, Hitchens is gone now. But Hitchens was on EconTalk to talk about why Orwell matters. And he talks at length about how Orwell's honesty at that point--that he reported that the Left was covering up the anti-, the Soviet's, as you say, their purges of similar-but-not-true-enough believers. And he [?]--
Thomas Ricks: Exactly. Built a crematorium on the outskirts of Barcelona to dispose of the Left-wingers they killed.
Russ Roberts: And he loses a lot of friends because of this.
Thomas Ricks: Yeah.
Russ Roberts: And somehow carries on. And as you point out: Had he been killed by that bullet, he would have been a very minor figure. He wrote some nice essays that people still read. But I suspect they still read them because he was the author of 1984 and Animal Farm. How do you think--
Thomas Ricks: Well, some of his later essays--I mean, he hadn't written yet--"Politics and the English Language" is one of, I think, the great essays of all time. And I think that still would be read. But, as you say, he hadn't written it when he was in Spain.
Russ Roberts: So, do you have any thoughts--I don't remember you talking about this in the book. How is it that a man at the end of his life--and he lived a very short life and was very weak toward the end, as you describe very powerfully. How does he transform his talent in that way, going from, as you say, a mediocre novelist to the author of two of the most extraordinary and as you point out, I think correctly, arguably, the most important novels of the 20th century? It's an extraordinary story.
Thomas Ricks: Well, one reason that both Churchill and Orwell are so intriguing here is, they were right about what was important in their time. A lot of their contemporaries were wrong. And we only know with the passing of time not only that Churchill was right and that Orwell was right, but how right he was. It was unfashionable to take the political stance he took. On the Left. The basic view, then, was: 'Communism is good. Anything that helps Communism is good. So even lying about it is good. Enduring[?] facts that disagree with the Party--that's what we need to do.' And again, you have an alliance there between Churchill and Orwell: They both begin insisting on the facts. If you go back and read Churchill's speeches in the House of Commons, throughout the 1930s, beginning in 1933 he gets up repeatedly and says, 'The fact of the matter of is...'. Facts also become Orwell's key. And, the insistence that the individual's perception is the beginning of freedom--this is made explicit in 1984--he says, 'The right to say that 2+2=4 is the beginning point of freedom. If you have that, you have everything else you need to be free.' So, if the assistance of both sides--if one of the facts that matter, apply your principles to those facts; and never put opinion over facts. And, what I love is that this is something that we can learn from today. From both Churchill and Orwell. And in fact, there's a great instance of it in American history--which is Dr. Martin Luther King, in the early 1960s, sitting in his jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, writes his letter from the Birmingham City Jail in the margins of a newspaper--because they won't give him writing paper. And that is very much in the tradition of Orwell. He says, 'What are the facts of the matter? The fact is that Birmingham is the most segregated city in America. The fact is that Negroes wishing to exercise the rights the government says they have are prevented violently from doing so by the security organs of the state of Alabama.' And he lays out the facts of the matter. So, I think their perception of Churchill and Orwell, that the key question of the 20th century was not what Freud thought, working with the subconscious, the unconscious, and not what Marx thought--ownership of the means of production--the key question, these guys said, was how you preserve freedom. And that liberty begins with the right of the individual to perceive the facts as he or she sees them. I think that was a great insight of theirs. That's why I think they rise up so powerfully, and why all those later works kind of had such a sustained audience. He has sold 50 million books, since he died. Until the last couple of years of his life, he said[?] almost nothing. So, I think that with the passage of time we've seen that Orwell especially gives us insight to the world we live in today; and in fact gave us a lot of the vocabulary we use to think about the world today. You know, the great phrases, sentences, out of Animal Farm, and especially 1984: 'Big Brother is watching.' 'War is peace.' 'Ignorance is strength.' Even his hero, in 1984--named Winston, by the way--the hero of 1984 has a job. People remember that part of this job is to get rid of inconvenient facts: He actually cut them out; and at the end of his desk there's a thing called the 'Memory Hole.' He drops facts into the Memory Hole--the facts that the government no longer wants to have around. But also, part of his job is to dumb down the language. So, he explains to a friend, 'We used to have words like splendid and excellent. Now we have good, plus good, and double-plus good.' Which actually reminds me somewhat of our current President's vocabulary limitations.
Russ Roberts: Well, it's more than that. It's the--he's just--I view our current situation as the product of other trends. A lack of respect for language, emphasis on the sound bite--just reminds me of when people said to me, when I started EconTalk, 'No one wants to listen to something for an hour. They want 30 seconds. Maybe 5 minutes. But your show shouldn't be over 5 or 10 minutes at the most.' People would say to me, 'NPR (National Public Radio), an 8-minute segment is a long segment.' And, you know, there is some, I think, cyclical response to this. There is some awareness that we've lost something. We've lost something about the truth in our urge for shorter and quicker.
Russ Roberts: I would push a little past what you said when you talk about the facts. I often talk on this program about the dangers of statistical analysis, how easily it's manipulated. And I always say, despite that, that that doesn't mean that evidence is not relevant. The facts do matter. But it's more than the facts. Because the facts are often manipulated, too. And selectively chosen, and cherry picked. It's really an eye[?] for the truth, which is elusive. We all have to be aware of our own biases. But I think the willingness of Churchill and Orwell to say at least what they thought was true--which turned out by history to actually be true--that Nazism was more than just a different way of living: it was evil. That the growth of the state to the levels that it had reached in the Soviet Union was more than just an infringement on liberty: it was the end of liberty for so many people tragically in that system. Those truths--they turned out to be true. They were actual truths. And I think it's so hard to keep our eye on the prize--
Thomas Ricks: Well, I think it's--it's facts and principles together, you are right. Facts are nothing without principles to help us understand, organize, and deem[?] what's important--what's essential and what's relatively minor. That combination, though, is so powerful--in fact, in principle--and that's what you see with the Soviet dissidents, for example. For Solzhenitsyn actually to simply go out and observe the facts of the Gulag, of the Soviet penal system--this is an act that is revolutionary; and, in the eyes of the Soviet government, subversive. They recognize that if people start determining their own facts, we're going to lose control of this society.
Russ Roberts: Which was true.
Thomas Ricks: Which is in fact what happened. But, it's the combination of principles and facts. So that's one thing I find myself doing these days, looking around, not only for who is accurate in portraying the facts, but also who is supplying principle to them. I'm not a conservative, but I find, lately, some of the most informed political commentary has come from American conservatives who are opposed to Trump, partly because they have a perspective I don't--that of the conservative--and so they see Trump slightly differently. And so they've persuaded me--these writers like Eliot Cohen[?], David Frum, Max [?], Jennifer Rubin--they've persuaded me that Trump is not a conservative because he has no loyalty to institutions; he has no understanding of the American Constitution in his daily application. And so he's probably more a radical reactionary than he is a genuine conservative.
Russ Roberts: Let's go back to Orwell, though, because I'm just so fascinated. I did not know this, and I think it will shock listeners: He couldn't get 1984 published for the longest time. Talk about that.
Thomas Ricks: Actually, it was Animal Farm.
Russ Roberts: Oh, it was Animal Farm. Sorry.
Thomas Ricks: It was Animal Farm that he had real difficulty getting published. Which he was surprised by. He had always been able to find publishers of some sort, even as he's becoming internally more critical of the Left, as in The Road to Wigan Pier. But Animal Farm--he's finished it; he knows it a good book, that it has real potential. And, it keeps on getting rejected. We now know, partly because the KGB (Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti, Soviet security enforcement agency) archives were opened, that one of the people who prevented the book from getting published was a British official named Peter Smollett. And, Peter Smollett had contacted some publishers and said, 'You don't want to publish this. It would not be helpful.' We now know that Peter Smollet, besides being a British official, was secretly a Soviet spy. So, there were real stakes here. Not surprisingly, Orwell about this time begins to carry a pistol, because so many of his friends have been killed by Soviet agents in Spain; and he's worried that when Animal Farm comes out, as eventually it did right after the war ended in Europe, he begins to worry that they'll try to kill him, as well. Because, though, the book was delayed until the end of the war, suddenly paper became more available. And they began printing Animal Farm and essentially never stopped. It was a smash hit, in England, and then in Europe, and then in America. And for the first time in his life, 1945, money begins to pour in to Orwell. He's not a rich man, but he's able to pay his debts and able to live decently. Unfortunately for him, he only lives another few years and dies at the age of 46, in 1950.
Russ Roberts: So, I want to--before I forget--I used to, at the end of my classes at the end of every year, every semester, I would encourage my students to read a set of books I thought they might miss: the Bible, P. G. Wodehouse, Three Men in a Boat, by Jerome K. Jerome. This is an eclectic list. And I would also mention the three volumes of The Gulag Archipelago, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, because they are such an incredible tribute to human courage in the face of tyranny. And I think it's not an easy read for most--it wasn't an easy read then; it's even less easy now, now that the Soviet Union has fallen. But, if you can't handle that, I do recommend Anne Applebaum's book, the Gulag, which is a short, one-volume summary of what that world was.
Thomas Ricks: I would actually add Anne to my list of conservatives, or centrists I would say, but conservative centrists whose criticism of Trump is so illuminating.
Russ Roberts: She is an excellent writer. I find it interesting as I was--two things about Orwell's last two books. Let's start with Animal Farm. You make the great point that England is a great fount of talking animal books. Which I'd never thought about. Winnie-the-Pooh, Wind in the Willows, Doctor Dolittle. Is that a British thing?--
Thomas Ricks: Peter Rabbit--
Russ Roberts: Peter Rabbit. Is that a British thing, or is it just that we read, you and I read in English and notice those? Is that a tradition in any other culture, literary culture?
Thomas Ricks: It is a great tradition in the West, going back to Aesop's Fables. But somehow it was a fairly minor strain. And then, for some reason, and I can't tell you why, it explodes in late 19th century and early 20th century England. It's funny--I actually came to this subject as an old war correspondent, because I think that some of the best things ever written about war are actually so difficult, psychologically, for the writer to handle that they are actually transformed and not necessarily recognizable as being about war. A good example of this is Doctor Dolittle. Doctor Dolittle begins as a series of letters written home from the front by a British soldier to his children, really to keep himself entertained to get his mind off the war. But, here he is, under ground, like an animal, in trenches. And so, when men are living and dying like animals, what are they? They are talking animals. And so, Doctor Dolittle is kind of an expression, I think, of war, as we are just talking animals. So, in fact animals are probably more humane than we are. The animals in Dr. Dolittle's stories are very humane; and Dr. Dolittle was honored to be able to communicate with them. But I think that's just sort of one iteration of the animal-story tradition. I actually came to realize while I was writing this, also, the odd echo between Animal Farm, a British story of talking pigs, and a few years later, E. B. White writes Charlotte's Web--an American story of a talking pig, in a much sunnier, more optimistic state. As America tends to be--more sunny and optimistic than England.
Russ Roberts: That's a great observation. When I was reading your book, I thought about Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, which I think has fallen a little bit out of fashion as a high school reading. Maybe not. But it's certainly not as prominent as 1984 in popular culture. But, given its emphasis on the use of pharmaceuticals to soothe and control population, it's surprising to me that it's not more timely. Or, it's timely--it's interesting to me that it hasn't gotten the attention that Orwell's gotten.
Thomas Ricks: I can't remember whether I mention this in the book: Huxley and Orwell knew each other. Huxley, in fact, had been Orwell's French teacher at school. And there's been this debate in recent years, sort of a running, skirmishing argument: Who got the modern world right? Huxley, with government seducing by pleasure, or Orwell, in which the government controls through pain? And I think the fact of the matter is, both of them are right. The majority of the people, most of the time, care more about pleasure than about freedom. So, the fact is, that a small [?] of difficult minority will always insist on truth and freedom. And they are almost always a minority, even at the expense of suffering pain. And, again, I go back to the Soviet dissidents. Two things that strike me about them: They really were dedicated to freedom and truth. And also, they tend to be really curmudgeonly people. To be able to take on a whole government and fight back and prevail, you have to have a real stubborn streak in you. Most people get frustrated just when they go to the U.S. Post Office. Well, the Soviet Union was like a giant post office--[?] people who complained, [?] the prison is in the back of the post office.
Russ Roberts: I would argue that the Post Office has gotten better--
Thomas Ricks: It has. I live on an island in Maine, and the Post Office here is very nice.
Russ Roberts: under pressure from FedEx and modern techniques. It's improved. It's nothing like it was 25 years ago.
Thomas Ricks: The market has bailed them out.
Russ Roberts: A little bit.
Thomas Ricks: I used to think of it, as I stood in line at Post Offices, 'This is as close as I'll ever come to living in the Soviet Union.'
Russ Roberts: Well, you may have underestimated the future a little bit. The surveillance aspects of American life, and everywhere now, are a little bit creepy, for me, in terms of its threat to liberty.
Thomas Ricks: It's interesting that you mention that. That's one thing that I think Orwell didn't see. He did see the intrusiveness of government. He did not see the intrusiveness of the corporation, which I think, partly because of market forces is much better at surveilling the individual than the government is.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I disagree with you a little bit.
Thomas Ricks: Really?
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Because I think, although, I think they can surveil us in the sense right now that they know what they search for and they can tailor their ads and make money off us, I can always stop using Google. I can switch to DuckDuckGo. I can turn off my computer. And they can't put me in jail. They can't kill me. They can't torture me. And I just--I think to compare corporations to the state, in terms of the risk and the threat--when they are together, that's very frightening. Absolutely. And it's a big problem, and it's not to be minimized. But the pure, the profit motive, in its ability to harm me is always limited by the fact that their coercive ability limited. It's not always zero. Obviously there's cultural forces that might encourage me to use Facebook or some other service that allows me to give up some of my freedom. But I can always close that computer. And you can argue, 'Well, that's not really realistic.' But it doesn't compare to a knock on the door in the middle of the night and being tortured or murdered in a concentration camp. It's just not--I find that it's a little bit--I think it's unhealthy, even, to suggest they are even of the same magnitude. You can disagree.
Thomas Ricks: Well, it's an interesting observation. I haven't heard it before, and I want to think on it some--taking Churchill's and Orwell's advice to 'mull the facts' before we can come to decisions on them. I think it may be the equivalent of the Huxley/Orwell difference is that the pervasiveness of corporate surveillance, it's not coercive, but it is pervasive. You basically cannot hold a job in America without using a computer nowadays. So, yes: You can become effectively a cultural hermit. But you can't really do anything--you can't make an airplane reservation. You can't do a lot of things in this country without going online. You are really forced to go online unless you want to live in the cultural equivalent of the deeps woods.
Russ Roberts: Yeah and they know a lot about us. And by "they" I mean corporate entities of various kinds. It's splintered to some extent; but to some extent it's a little bit more centralized than I'm comfortable with. And there's a lot of--at least for now. Things change, and come along, about whose search engine is the search engine du jour, etc., and whose--Instagram--is replaced by this and that, Snapchat--I'm not going to get the chronology right. So, there's some movement and competition in a way that isn't there. My only point would be that certainly they know a lot about us; their ability to use that is mitigated by the fact that I can walk away from them. But there are still some scary things. I don't want to minimize that. I think it is an area we need to think about.
Thomas Ricks: I think the scariest thing is when the corporate scale combines with the government's coercive abilities.
Russ Roberts: Agreed. Oh, agreed.
Thomas Ricks: And we're seeing there, in some of the product sold to the government by corporations--it may be in the future that the government develops the ability to simply tap or monitor those corporate databases. And that would be very scary to me.
Russ Roberts: Yup. And the flip side of that is they can befriend certain corporate players in various ways--protect their patents extensively, beyond the letter of the law. They can favor through policy certain industries--which they do. All of that is deeply disturbing. Which of course is why I'm a classical liberal, and not a conservative. I'm very eager to preserve the freedom of the individual in the face of the state. And, I believe--naively perhaps--that the best way to protect ourselves from the power of the corporation is to make sure that the state's power to favor them is limited. But, of course, opinions differ on this.
Russ Roberts: I want to turn to Hayek. Reading about 1984--I haven't read 1984 for 20 years, 25 years; I think that was the second time, but it's been a long, long time--I was struck a little bit by Hayek's book, The Road to Serfdom, which was written in 1944, where Hayek says: We're at risk of going down a very dangerous path here and moving toward a place where the state is too powerful. And people like to make fun of Hayek, saying that he was wrong: we didn't end up with serfdom. And I find that a strange criticism. It was obviously a warning; it wasn't a forecast. And even if it was a forecast, who cares? It's a silly thing to argue about whether he was right. What he was right about is there is danger in empowering the state too much and harming individual liberty. Orwell certainly did the same thing. He wrote a book about the dystopian future that was much more malevolent than anything that happened in the West, certainly. And even than what happened in the Soviet Union, but it was too close for comfort. Obviously. I wonder if he got any criticism for being overly dramatic about what was at stake and what was at risk, and that his vision of that dystopia was paranoid? The way Hayek did. And does.
Thomas Ricks: Yeah, um, and I think actually that was one of the limiting factors on Orwell's being read. And especially, even today, the lingering distaste for Orwell in academic circles: he is kind of a pumped up young adult or juvenile writer. It's sort of seen as a relic of the cold war, an artifact that really doesn't speak to us. And I think that's gone away a bit, but still, the academic prejudice against him continues. The thing when you talk about Hayek and Orwell that strikes me is: Orwell's great blind spot, as Christopher Hitchens put it, was America.
Russ Roberts: Yup.
Thomas Ricks: And I think it's especially true in economics. Orwell never saw America, never visited it--unlike Churchill. And so, Orwell's only experience of capitalism was British capitalism, which was late-industrial era, declining capitalism, that was focused much more on gaining efficiency than innovation. And efficiency is all about squeezing out another 1 or 2%, finding a simpler, faster process, and so on. It's not about creating and inventing new things. And in fact, the capitalism that Orwell saw was a capitalism that was unable to cope with the coming world. So, for example, there is no British IBM (International Business Machines Corporation). The British drop out of the aircraft business in the 1950s; out of the automobile business except for the luxury items in the 1950s as well. Had he come to America, and especially had he been able to survive into the 1980s, 1984, he would have seen a very different form of it. This innovation-based capitalism, especially the Silicon Valley of the early information age. And I think he might have might have come up with some very different thoughts. At the same time, I also think he would have, at the end, been appalled by the data-mining of the American corporation. In fact, somebody who has played with this thought well is the novelist Dave Eggers, who wrote The Circle. Which is 1984 moved Silicon Valley. And, Eggers is a very clever writer, and he has a lot of fun with it. It's worth reading, though. If you haven't read either Animal Farm or 1984 lately, go back and read Animal Farm again. You can read it in an evening. It's very funny, just as a fable, as an adult. He calls it a 'Fairy Tale,' but it's an adult fairy tale, and it's a tale of disenchantment. But, I just enjoy things like, when the sheep, who are kind of morons, start walking around chanting, 'Four legs good, two legs bad.' Which they really like to do all day long. And then the birds get mad, and say, 'Stop that.' So, Orwell is just having fun on that level. And I can be [?] for--it really resonates in a variety of ways--the official government use of torture, which we've had in the United States, now for the last 16 years, a real departure from past policy which torture actually was used sometimes but it was always legal beyond the pale and was often prosecuted. The age of permanent warfare--Orwell has an eerie description in 1984 of war occurring in distant places, carried out by specialized troops, and not really affecting most people except for occasional bombs going off in the cities. So, that's almost exactly the state of war we have now. So, I think they are both worth going back and kind of seeing how they apply, especially to the post-9/11 [September 11, 2001, bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City] world.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, it's really startling--I hadn't thought about it until just now. You'd have thought that the year 1984, once it had come and gone, that Orwell's book would be considered a sort of historical relic. But, it's a timeless four-digit description of authoritarianism that will probably never die. Which is really quite remarkable.
Thomas Ricks: It wasn't seen that way until recently. Even Harold Bloom, a sympathetic critic--and by the way, one of my professors at college--Harold Bloom called 1984 the 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' of the Cold War.
Russ Roberts: Yeah.
Thomas Ricks: And, it's only when the Cold War ends that you say, 'Well, actually, no. It's a universal story about the relationship between the individual and the state.' And there's a reason there are 13 translations of 1984 into Chinese. There's a reason that the government of Thailand doesn't like you to bring 1984 into the country. People see, yeah: this is a constant struggle, in a variety of forms. And what Orwell does is give us a physical and mental vocabulary for dealing with this. How to think about it.
Russ Roberts: Let's close with a quote from your book, which I think is worth remembering. You say, "To refuse to run with the herd is harder than it looks." I find my natural reaction in the face of the current political climate--and by that I mean, by the current political climate I mean both how the Left and the Right talk about their "sides." I find it deeply dispiriting. And, someone recently criticized me for my 'glib'--the glib ease with which I implied a pox on both their houses. But I do feel that that attitude--a pox on both their houses--and by 'both their houses' I mean the Left and the Right--it's, to me--it's really the only thoughtful, the only refuge for a thoughtful person, these days. I find myself disinterested in reading the newspaper because I find it so depressing. I find--I have no interest in the minutiae of policy. Forget the minutiae--really the swing. Because the discourse on it, I find so--to be blunt--dishonest. And, I don't know--I know what you are saying with that line. And I want to champion that few: which is that, to be a real contrarian, especially when you have some skin in the game, is incredibly difficult. So many people went along with the Left when the Soviets, went along with the Soviets, when they were murdering people. And so many people were appeasers--because that was, as you say, as you point out, not just appealing but fashionable. And fashion just seems to dominate so much of our discourse. Maybe that's nothing new. But it seems the quality is, in many ways, lower than ever. Do you want to react to that?
Thomas Ricks: I know exactly where you are coming from. Because I've kind of felt that way for several months--since the election. And not just, that's not just [?] Trump: it's also, you know, in the way the Democrats conducted the election, and their response to it. That said, I find two points of optimism [?]. Number one is principle. Look around for people of principle who like Churchill and Orwell are willing to stand by principle and especially to stand up and point it out when their own side, is your phrase there, violates the principle. And there are people like that around. There's not--just not enough. But there are people like that. The second thing is: I actually take a real pleasure in seeing the American system work. The Founding Fathers anticipated situations like this. It's one reason they designed an adversarial system of government--
Russ Roberts: yep--
Thomas Ricks: to make sure that no one power center came to overdominate the workings of the government. And I actually find a real amusement seeing Donald Trump's--you know, tweets against judges. You know, 'Judges are just getting in the way, too much.' You know, and I think, 'Hey, the American system's working.' Every time he complains about Congress, I say, 'Yep. You know, hats' off to the Founding Fathers. They figured this out.' And sometimes you are going to have an objective that's going off the rails. Sometimes you are going to have a Congress that's screwing things up. And these different branches of government correct each other and push each other back into the road. And it pushes us back toward the middle. I found myself grateful for the Federal judges of today, because I've never been before in my life, and I think in the one sense they are profoundly conservative, in that they are simply standing on the Constitution. But also, they are showing us that we have an operating manual for this country, and it may be slow sometimes but it does kick in and begin working again. And like, I see that system working right now.
Russ Roberts: And God bless intertia. Sometimes. Sometimes. And people complain--I think a lot about Thomas Friedman--that, I think I'm quoting him correctly and if I got this wrong, I'll apologize: both of us will try to put a link up to that column. He once wrote--and he's not alone--arguing that, 'Oh, the Chinese, they have such a great system. You just get stuff done.' Be careful what you wish for. One of the great virtues of the United States is it's hard to get stuff done. And, at least in certain sectors.
Thomas Ricks: Yes. And that is a virtue, because you have to go out and persuade people. Bring them along. Maybe even compromise. And, if you are not willing to compromise, you are not going to get a lot done in America. And that's a good thing.