The Self-Pity of Elena Kagan

From a letter she wrote to the Daily Princetonian, as a senior at Princeton reflecting on the 1980 elections:

Looking back on last Tuesday, I can see that our gut response — our emotion-packed conclusion that the world had gone mad, that liberalism was dead and that there was no longer any place for the ideals we held or the beliefs we espoused — was a false one. In my more rational moments, I can now argue that the next few years will be marked by American disillusionment with conservative programs and solutions, and that a new, revitalized, perhaps more leftist left will once again come to the fore. I can say in these moments that one election year does not the death of liberalism make and that 1980 might even help the liberal camp by forcing it to come to grips with the need for organization and unity. But somehow, one week after the election, these comforting thoughts do not last long. Self-pity still sneaks up, and I wonder how all this could possibly have happened and where on earth I’ll be able to get a job next year.

I’m not one to hold someone’s [update: ideological] views as a twenty-year-old against them [update: and therefore I don’t put much weight on the fact that she apparently yearned for a “more leftist left” to take power]. I do find it strange that a summa cum laude graduate of Princeton apparently couldn’t conceive of working anywhere but for a Democratic politician. Really, where on earth, other than the Reagan Administration, could she NOT get a job? Did she ever hear of the private sector? (She instead went to Oxford, then to Harvard Law.)

[Update: But I do think Kagan’s early interest in political power is potentially revealing.] I knew quite a few students at Yale Law who were like Kagan–they dreamed of being a Senator, or a Supreme Court Justice, from the time they were in high school or before. (Kagan’s high school friends say she wanted to be a Supreme Court Justice even then!) Some of them, unlike Kagan, were from political families, which is at least a partial excuse. In general, they were not my favorite people; among other things, you never knew if they were being genuinely nice, or saw you as just another potential supporter/donor for their future career.

I’m of the general view that people who lust after political power are the last ones who should get it, regardless of party or declared ideology. People who start lusting during their adolescence or before are perhaps the worst of the breed. But, as Hayek reminded in the Road to Serfdom, when it comes to politics, the worst tend to rise to the top. I hope Kagan is an exception.

UPDATE: Why am I suspicious of people who lust after political power, especially people who do so from a young age? Because these are people who tend to think that they know better than the average person how the average person should run their lives, and therefore want to exercise authority over them. The very fact, in fact, that they want to exercise authority over other people is troubling. Such people, for self-evident reasons, tend not to have libertarian political instincts.

David Brooks, though of course not concerned about the libertarian angle, has related thoughts.