"I think that most people -- even those who read the editorial and op-ed pages -- do not want to encounter opposing views. They want a good expression and confirmation of the views they have, or the views they would have if they thought about the subject. I can see that tendency in myself."
Those shrewd words are among the many bits of contrarian wisdom offered by a smart, puckish and exceptionally honest commentator who, alas, will no longer be around to prick our intellectual balloons. Herbert Stein -- chairman of President Nixon's Council of Economic Advisers, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, columnist for the Wall Street Journal, contributor to the online magazine Slate -- died on Wednesday at the age of 83. His is a voice I'll truly miss.
As I write those words, I realize I'm falling into the very trap that Stein described. Of course I liked him in part because he was a contrarian conservative who often said what I was thinking better than I could. His arguments had special power, coming from an unapologetic free-market economist who nonetheless insisted there was more to life than economics.
"The children growing up in wretched families, in unsafe schools, and in vicious streets are also `our' children," he wrote. "A decent respect for family values calls for more concern with them and more commitment to them than is shown by most of those who now wave the flag of family values." You have to love an economist willing to say such a thing.
And, yes, I revered him for his role as house dissident on the Journal's editorial page. That page's stubborn insistence that cutting capital gains taxes and income tax rates on the wealthy was always and everywhere the right thing to do didn't square with Stein's reading of the evidence. And for Stein, evidence mattered.
"Given the behavior of the stock market and the record high proportion of the population that is employed," he wrote this summer, "I find it hard to buy the supply-side proposition that present taxes are depressing risk-taking and the supply of labor." Indeed. He said this in a piece counseling against cutting taxes now. It's to the credit of an opinion page that often enforces orthodoxy with the confidence of the Vatican's Osservatore Romano that its editors allowed Stein to go his merry, independent-minded way.
And Stein's merry way was a large part of his appeal. Parodying those who thought the government could solve any social problem -- Stein really was a Republican -- he once suggested that to solve the country's nagging marriage problem, the feds might set themselves up as providers of "spouses of last resort." Now that is big government.
But if Stein poked fun, he didn't excoriate or ridicule. He didn't set himself up as a paragon of genius or virtue. He presented evidence, including inconvenient evidence. "If he presented five points, one of them usually went against his own position," said Michael Kinsley, his editor at Slate. He was relentlessly logical, Kinsley said, but did not "use logic as a weapon."
"Whenever a colleague questions my father's approach to an issue," his son Ben wrote in the American Enterprise magazine on his dad's 80th birthday, "my father's first inquiry is whether he, my father, might be wrong, not the other guy. When he disagrees, he does it with minimum force and maximum politesse." How different is that from what we're becoming accustomed to in the world of commentary?
This was a person plying two trades -- economics and opinion writing -- both notorious for predictions offered with utter certainty. When Stein made a prediction, he reminded you of all the variables that could make things go the other way. "Here are my own views," he wrote in his Wall Street Journal tax piece this summer, "which I recognize may be wrong."
Stein once offered Slate readers his list of "unfamiliar quotations," reprinted in a lovely collection of essays called "What I Think" (AEI Press, 1998). There is this delightful gem from Richard Nixon: "Honesty may not be the best policy, but it is worth trying once in a while."
And there is this line, which Stein described as "an advance comment on the Information Age of which we are now so proud." T. S. Eliot wrote: "Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?/Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?"
Stein valued both knowledge and information. But as a true conservative, he knew wisdom mattered more.