Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen has written a book vitally important for understanding the present crisis in Western politics. If this work had appeared two or three years ago, it still would have been of great significance, but coming as it does in the wake of Brexit, Trump, and other shocks to the liberal consensus, its relevance is further enhanced.
But a warning is in order: American conservatives may be cheered by the appearance of a book entitled “Why Liberalism Failed.” But, in the sense in which Deneen is using “liberalism,” most American conservatives are actually liberals. Deneen’s use is in fact the one common among political theorists, many of whom argue that America does not have a conservative and a liberal party. Rather, it has a right-liberal party, focused on free markets and free trade, and a left-liberal party, focused on social issues. The United States, according to this view, has never had a “church and throne” conservative party such as those seen in many European countries.
A second point that may puzzle some readers is the implicit assertion of the title: Deneen did not name the book, “Has Liberalism Failed?” or “Will Liberalism Fail?” His title—“Why Liberalism Failed”—is more bold. Elite opinion continues to hold that liberalism (in the above-noted political theory sense) is not only succeeding marvelously but is really the only political system even worthy of consideration or respect. (Consider the enthusiasm for U.S. military adventures against any regime judged insufficiently liberal, or the lack of hesitation shown toward efforts to “reform” traditional societies to bring them “up” to liberal standards, despite the lip-service liberalism pays to multiculturalism.) In the face of such consensus, one may ask how Deneen can blithely assume that liberalism’s failure has already occurred. But, as we shall see, he has very good reasons for his conclusion.
Deneen notes that liberalism is one of the three great ideologies to dominate modern politics, along with communism and fascism. The latter two have been vanquished as serious competitors to liberalism, which had an advantage over them: “In contrast to its crueler competitor ideologies, liberalism is more insidious: as an ideology, it pretends to neutrality, claiming no preference and denying any intention of shaping the souls under its rule. It ingratiates by invitation to the easy liberties, diversions, and attractions of freedom, pleasure, and wealth.”
The two liberal parties in America compete by pointing to two seemingly opposed but factually reinforcing trends. The right-liberal Republicans warn against the dominance of society by the state, while the left-liberal Democrats point to the tyranny of the market as the greatest threat to human freedom. Thus each party inspires its partisan members by fear of the threat the other party represents. But despite appearances, both parties, in fact, jointly work to expand both the state and the market.
As Deneen writes, “The insistent demand that we choose between protection of individual liberty and expansion of state activity masks the true relation between the state and market: that they grow constantly and necessarily together… modern liberalism proceeds by making us both more individualist and more statist.”
Even if one accepts Deneen’s conclusion about this relationship between state and market under liberalism, why should we think that liberalism is failing? Isn’t our great material wealth, our increased longevity, and relative safety evidence that liberalism is succeeding, whatever its downsides might be? Deneen, well aware of this argument, has an effective counter—namely, that liberalism has been “making progress” similar to a meth addict, who has been burning up his body’s reserves, but responds to warnings about his behavior by pointing out how many times he has cleaned his room and dead-headed the roses this week. Those activities are fine things, but they are being carried out at an unsustainable pace. As Deneen puts it: “Liberalism has drawn down on a preliberal inheritance and resources that at once sustained liberalism but which it cannot replenish.”
In identifying the false anthropology at the heart of the liberal venture, Deneen cites Hobbes as a pioneer of this mistaken view. He notes that for Hobbes “the state is charged with maintaining social stability and preventing a return to natural anarchy….Human beings are thus, by nature, nonrelational creatures, separate and autonomous.”
Proto-liberals such as Locke and Jefferson and modern liberals such as Mises and Rawls have all started from a similar place: we are first and foremost human atoms who only need to “contract” into social groups insofar as it is to our advantage. As Deneen notes, “Even marriage, Locke holds, is finally to be understood as a contract whose conditions are temporary and subject to revision…” Or, as Mises put it, “The fundamental facts that brought about cooperation, society, and civilization and transformed the animal man into a human being are the facts that work performed under the division of labor is more productive than isolated work and that man’s reason is capable of recognizing this truth.”
Anyone of a religious bent would surely object to the idea that humans only get along with each other because they realize output will be higher if they do so. But one need not be religious to see that Mises is spouting nonsense: humans (and proto-humans) lived together in tight-knit social groups long before they could have been calculating the advantages of the division of labor. There never were “isolated…self-sufficient individuals” with which they could compare their “output” as members of a group. Isolated humans were dead humans, not self-sufficient humans. And our chimpanzee, bonobo, and gorilla relatives also live in tight-knit social groups, as do many other animals.
Deneen makes a particularly important, and commonly misunderstood, point in the following passage: “The ‘Noble Lie’ of liberalism is shattering because it continues to be believed and defended by those who benefit from it, while it is increasingly seen as a lie, and not an especially noble one, by the new servant class that liberalism has produced…But liberalism’s apologists regard pervasive discontent, political dysfunction, economic inequality, civic disconnection, and populist rejection as accidental problems disconnected from systemic causes, because their self-deception is generated by enormous reservoirs of self-interest in the maintenance of the present system.”
Often, when it is pointed out that it is in the self-interest of commentator X to take view Y, someone will respond, “No, I am sure that X really believes Y!” But that response misses the point: when it is in our self-interest to believe Y, very often we will not merely feign belief in Y but talk ourselves into actually believing Y. What’s more, often we will convince ourselves that we believe it for the most admirable reasons. This self-deception is crucial to the maintenance of our self-image as good, modern “free thinkers,” while this “free thinking” has led us to precisely those views that most help us get ahead in life.
Someone having reached this far into my review might suspect Deneen of being a reactionary fantasist seeking a return to some earlier “golden age.” But he is not, nor does he deny liberalism’s accomplishments. In pondering how we might proceed, if we accept his diagnosis of liberalism as a failed ideology, he writes, “First, the achievements of liberalism must be acknowledged, and the desire to ‘return’ to a preliberal age must be eschewed. We must build upon those achievements while abandoning the foundational reasons for its failures. There can be no going back, only forward.”
This passage highlights the danger in this desire to “go back.” I explored this danger in my book on the decline of the Roman Republic, Oakeshott on Rome and America. I wrote that, while for several centuries Romans simply respected and followed the mos maiorum (the way of the ancestors), when their traditions began to break down there arose a brand new traditionalist ideology. Whereas Rome’s traditions previously had been followed in a natural and organic way, which allowed for their organic modification as circumstances changed, once they began to break down a faction arose demanding that they be turned into rules that must be followed without deviation (and thus without allowing any organic response to changing circumstances).
This is an error that has snared too many modern conservatives. They wish to return to the 1950s, or the 1920s, or the 1890s, or the 1780s, or whatever other period they admire. Such a return, as Deneen clearly recognizes, is impossible. We can try to preserve the best aspects of earlier times, but we cannot ever recreate them. After all, even if we could, given that the circumstances of those earlier times brought about our present crisis, wouldn’t we just repeat the exact same progression that has led to the current situation, the one that nostalgic conservatives deplore?
Deneen, it is true, acknowledges the lessons of the past and recognizes that not all wisdom is contained in the latest trendy soundbite from some esteemed pundit. But he argues that we must concede that the present is always novel in many ways and that the past provides no blueprint for how to act now. Indeed, the very idea that we could act according to a blueprint is itself a rationalist conceit.
Perhaps most importantly, Deneen recognizes that what is most needed are new practices and not simply new theories. The basic error of all three modern ideologies is the idea that practical life can be conducted on a theoretical basis. This is like turning to professional mathematicians for their street savvy or avant-garde pianists to play the town square dance. Deneen’s conclusions track with TAC writer Rod Dreher’s call for a new “Benedict Option.” Both argue that those aware of the breakdown of the “liberal world order” must first and foremost strive to create practical, not theoretical, alternatives to the liberal society crumbling around them. Nevertheless, this book provides a sound theoretical basis for their doing so, and that makes it must reading for anyone who recognizes our ongoing crisis.
Gene Callahan is the author of Economics for Real People and Oakeshott on Rome and America. He has taught philosophy, economics, mathematics, and computer science at the university level, and holds a PhD in politics from Cardiff University.
The Trump administration has made headlines, as it seems to do about once every 15 minutes (if my feed from CNN is accurate), by rescinding the Obama administration’s executive order on school bathroom policies. In a show of media groupthink so rare it is hard to discover more than one example per day of it, outlet after outlet bemoaned the fact that transgendered students had just lost a vital “protection.” One of them did, however, rather sheepishly admit that “The letter to schools will have no immediate effect, because the Obama policy was blocked by a federal court shortly after it was issued last May.” So a policy that was never put in place was “protecting” transgender students, and revoking that policy will leave them defenseless, as apparently merely suggesting the policy was some sort of super-shield against “hate.”
This is obviously merely another excuse for outlets that already despise Trump to despise him some more. But is there a sensible way to handle the issue at play here? There is: as Pat Buchanan pointed out, it is subsidiarity. Solutions to social problems should start with the individual and the local community, and should rise to higher levels of organization only when there is strong evidence of malfeasance at the lower level.
The reason to start at the local level is that it’s here where people meet face-to-face. They can actually form what the classical tradition of political thought, from Aristotle to Guicciardini, would have recognized as political communities, in which people who know each other personally engage in discussion about how to best order their common life. It is much easier to hate and demonize one’s political opponent when he lives a thousand miles away; when he lives across the street and owns the local gas station or teaches at the local school, one is too likely to confront his humanity on a daily basis to easily turn him into a devil.
And I suspect that, when dealt with at this level, reasonable compromises can be reached on most of these “gender issues.” If a biological man wants to dress up like a woman, or a woman wants to dress up like a man, it really does not concern most people. And if someone who “presents” as a woman, despite having a penis, goes quietly into a stall in the women’s bathroom, goes about his/her business, and leaves, most people will be happy to leave that person alone. When there are special situations, like an inter-sexed child who has trouble fitting in with their assigned locker room, the average person is happy to create accommodations to make the child comfortable. And this is especially true, again, at the local level, where the child is a real human being, rather than a symbol in a political struggle. As a general solution to such problems, creating more access to private bathroom and changing facilities, for whatever reason they are needed, be it a gender issue, a religious issue, or simple shyness, can go a long way. (And this need not entail expensive construction: many schools already have private faculty bathrooms, and these could be opened to students who request private facilities.)
But it was transgender activists who disrupted the possibility of achieving these local accommodations by bringing down the heavy hand of legislation and executive orders. In New York City, for instance, Mayor Bill de Blasio declared that “Access to bathrooms and other single-sex facilities is a fundamental human right that should not be restricted or denied to anyone.” Which is a fairly obvious self-contradiction, since if no one is denied access to a bathroom or changing area, surely it is no longer “single-sex”! The order de Blasio signed states:
Executive Order 16 requires all New York City agencies to ensure that City employees and members of the public have access to single-sex facilities, such as bathrooms and locker rooms in City buildings and areas, consistent with their gender identity or expression without being required to show identification, medical documentation, or any other form of proof or verification of gender.
In other words, it is now illegal to prevent anyone at all from using any public “single-sex” facility, just so long as they declare their “gender identity” is the same as the sex designated on the door. We don’t just have to accommodate a biological male who always presents as a female using the ladies’ room: a man who suddenly decides a stroll through the women’s shower at a public pool simply has to “self-identify” as a woman, and in New York, it is now illegal to prevent him from having a nice, long look around. Contrary to the repeated refrain of those advocating these laws, that “they have never created any problems,” they already have, and we can be certain that as the population of voyeurs, molesters, and rapists figures out the import of these new dictates, we will see more such cases.
What’s more, these activists never rise to their own challenge and provide evidence of any widespread problem that these laws are addressing. And that’s because these laws are not aimed at solving any existing problem of any serious magnitude. Rather, they are blows directed against the “reactionary” notion that “man and woman he created them,” that the existence of two, and not four or nine or seventeen, sexes is part of the essential nature of humankind. The ideological nature of these mandates is quite clear in the web page created to celebrate New York’s bathroom access order, which contains many generalities—such as that “New York City is the birthplace of the fight for LGBT rights”—and no mention whatsoever of specific, existing problems that the order is addressing.
And it was in response to a similar law, passed in Charlotte, that the North Carolina “bathroom bill” was passed. (By the way, the North Carolina policy permits people to “re-sex” themselves on their birth certificate so they can quietly go about their business in the restroom they wish to use.) Similarly, activists in Houston tried to pass a law in the same vein well before the recent Texas “bathroom bill” was introduced.
So it was the transgender activists who disrupted the status quo, blocking the ability of communities to work out reasonable solutions to these matters on their own. The bills so far passed in North Carolina and contemplated in Texas may be heavy-handed, but have no doubt, it is the activists who are forcing the situation here. These state-level bills arose when parents realized that what these activists were demanding was that any pervert whatsoever could wander into the locker room in which their teenage daughter was changing after swim practice and gain the “right” to watch her undress, simply by declaring “I feel like I am a woman.” In response to this attempt to protect their daughters, they are being told they are “bigots,” and that their state will be economically crushed by “caring” organizations like the NFL and NBA if they persist in trying to protect those girls.
(I hope my focus on biological men’s interest in women’s private areas is not deemed “sexist.” I think I am on empirically firm footing when I say the odds of a woman being raped by a man are astronomically higher than the reverse, and that there are far more male voyeurs than female voyeurs. I also hope it is not too “sexist” of me to note that, in this regard, women are far better behaved than men!)
The “gender diversity” activists often say that the advocates of bills such as those in North Carolina and Texas are trying to paint all transgendered people as sexual predators, but that is just about the opposite of the truth: orders like de Blasio’s specifically forbid any attempt to differentiate biological males who really do self-identify as women from perverts who realize that the mayor has created a handy way for them to gain access to their victims. That is what disturbs most backers of the counter-legislation. And of course, such a sane differentiation is much more easily made on the local level than it is with the broad brush of legislation.
As Buchanan sagely notes, embracing the principle of subsidiarity is now perhaps the only hope for holding the Union together. To convince my many progressive friends that this approach—adopting a respect for local preferences and not trying to economically crush localities that pass laws you don’t like—is their best bet right now, I might suggest that starting a civil war, when the other side owns the vast majority of the guns in the nation and has most of the police and military on its side, is probably not a winning proposition.
Gene Callahan has a Ph.D. in political theory from Cardiff University and is the author of Oakeshott on Rome and America.
According to recent reports in the mainstream media, Steve Bannon is a supporter of “ethno-nationalism,” and that is scary. It is also, since everything the left doesn’t like is slapped with this label, “racist.” Sometimes, the word “white” is thrown in the mix of charges to make them extra scary, as in this tweet from the Southern Poverty Law Center. (If Bannon is a “white nationalist,” what work is “ethno” doing in that tweet? Or if he is really an “ethno-nationalist,” why is “white” thrown in except as a propaganda technique?)
To make their point, people are citing quotes from Bannon like this one: “‘When two-thirds or three-quarters of the C.E.O.s in Silicon Valley are from South Asia or from Asia, I think …’ he said, trailing off midsentence before continuing a moment later, ‘a country is more than an economy. We’re a civic society.’”
The website Quartz claims that “the distinction between nationalism and white nationalism may seem like splitting hairs from a liberal perspective”—an odd claim, since a nationalist would claim that our government should put the interest of all Americans (many of whom are not white) first, something we have heard repeatedly from Trump, while a white nationalist would say that only about white Americans. The site then goes on to say that Bannon believes all Americans kind of have their place, “so long as white Protestants remain, as it were, first among equals.” Which would be a pretty weird thing for Bannon to think, given he is Irish-Catholic: it would amount to him advocating that his own people never be other than second place.
I don’t know if Bannon would call himself an ethno-nationalist or not. But if he did, would it be a bad thing? I suggest not: ethno-nationalism is the core idea underlying the existence of nation-states, and has nothing whatsoever to do with racist nationalism.
First of all, “ethno-nationalism” is deeply woven into the very notion of the nation-state. The Greek word ethnos, used frequently in the New Testament, is often translated as “nation”: the idea of “a people” and that of a nation were seen as tightly linked. Millennia later, when progressives sought to redraw the map of Europe after WWI, they did so under the principle that each “ethnos” should have its own nation-state. Wilson’s Fourteen Points stresses the principle that each ethnos should be free to develop “autonomously.”
To darkly hint that “ethno-nationalism” really means “white nationalism,” as some critics of Bannon seem to be doing, is hinting nonsense. A vast majority of African-Americans are, in the ethno-nationalist sense, “more American” than anyone in my family: the ancestors of most African-Americans arrived here in the 1700s, while my ancestors did so only in the late 1800s. Native Americans are also obviously “more American” than anyone of European descent, and many Hispanic families have been in this country for a century and a half or more.
But it is not merely those with extended ancestries in America who are part of our ethnos: anyone who is here legally, even if they arrived yesterday, has joined our nation. Perhaps you believe that the level of legal immigration has been too high over the past decades. Whether that is correct or not, past is past: it is certainly not the fault of legal immigrants if our laws were too permissive in allowing immigration. Now that they have been legally allowed to join our nation, they are a part of it, and deserve the same protection and consideration as every other member.
“Ethno-nationalism,” as I understand the term, asserts only that we, who are living here as citizens, are Americans, and that the foremost end of our government is to protect us and our rights. This idea (properly understood) does not imply any hostility toward people from other countries. It simply means that it is their governments that are tasked with protecting them and promoting their well-being, while our government is tasked with protecting us and promoting our well-being. Nations are certainly not families and their citizens are not children, but in some respects there are useful analogies between the two: that I recognize that I am firstly responsible for caring for my own children does not mean I am hostile to other people’s children, or that I am “pedophobic.”
And so, as I believe both Bannon and Trump would assert, if the globalists seek to flood our country with low-wage laborers from the third world, they are first and foremost betraying their duty to our African-American fellow citizens, who, due to the terrible history of people of African descent in this country, tend to be lower-wage workers. When unemployment is running, depending upon how one counts, at 30-60 percent for young black men (Trump may have overstated this figure, but his point stands nevertheless), what are we doing bringing millions of low-wage workers into the country, a policy that can only ensure that the African-American unemployment rate will continue to remain unacceptably high?
And many of the Hispanics who are in the country legally also suffer from competition from those immigrating illegally: the latter can be compelled to work for low wages under poor conditions because of their precarious legal status. Every legal Hispanic immigrant working in the service industries would benefit tremendously from not having to compete with illegal immigrants willing to do the same jobs for much lower wages.
And what of Bannon’s worry about the number of foreign-born CEOs in Silicon Valley? Well, culture is a deep, complex thing, and it takes time to “become” an American culturally, or a Mongolian, or a Honduran. If I moved with my family to Honduras tomorrow, it probably would not be until the generation of my grandchildren that our family would be “fully Honduran,” culturally speaking, although we might be full citizens well before that. I don’t believe that Bannon was disparaging the great accomplishments of these immigrants, or suggesting that anyone should strip them of their positions because they are from Asia. I think he was only suggesting that it is difficult to form a workable, coherent culture when the number of newcomers is so high.
I don’t know Steve Bannon, and I have only read a small amount of his written output, and that only in the process of writing this piece. (In fact, I don’t recall ever visiting Breitbart.com before undertaking this assignment.) Perhaps, given my limited knowledge of him, Bannon really is, secretly, a “white nationalist,” despite his repeated public rejection of white nationalism. Perhaps he really is, secretly, a supporter of the racist elements of the alt-right, despite the fact that he has said he has “zero tolerance” for those elements. Perhaps he really is, secretly, anti-Semitic, despite his strong support for Israel (a support too strong, by my standards), and despite the character testimony provided for him by many Jews. But the evidence that Bannon holds these hidden views, as far as I have been able to examine it, is pathetic, and entirely inadequate to support such serious charges. No competent prosecutor would ever bring a case against a suspect based on such flimsy evidence.
So is there an alternative hypothesis as to why Bannon has been attacked in this fashion? Well, let us imagine that there is a globalist elite that doesn’t really care at all about the American people. When the housing crisis hit in 2007, instead of bailing out low-income homeowners (many of whom were African-American and Hispanic) who had been duped into taking on adjustable-rate mortgages that only someone with a degree in finance could understand, they instead bailed out the bankers who had made such loans. Instead of worrying about the impact of massive immigration on the lives our our own most vulnerable citizens (many of whom are African-American and Hispanic), they celebrated such immigration, since, after all, it provided them with cheap gardeners and nannies and maids, and their factories with cheap assembly-line workers. Now imagine that they are threatened by the possible ascendancy into power of people who do actually believe that the American government should put the interest of American citizens, be they black or Hispanic or white or Asian, first in our government’s policies? I would imagine that this (entirely imagined on my part!) elite would embark on a relentless smear campaign against anyone expressing such “ethno-nationalist” concern for our own citizens on the part of our own government, so that they could continue to enrich themselves at the expense of the rest of us.
Dear reader, please decide for yourself which hypothesis is most probable.
Gene Callahan teaches economics and computer science at St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn and is the author of Oakeshott on Rome and America.
William Lind described the origins of cultural Marxism as follows:
Following World War I, European Marxists faced a difficult question: why did the proletariat throughout Europe not rise in revolution and establish a new, Marxist order, as their ideology said it would? Two prominent Marxist thinkers, Antonio Gramsci in Italy and Georg Lukács in Hungary, came up with an answer: Western culture. Western culture so blinded the workers to their true, “class” interests that they could not act on them. So before socialism could come to power, Western culture had to be destroyed. Lukacs in 1919 posed the question, “Who will save us from Western civilization?”
This goal, of “saving” us by destroying the villain, Western civilization, was pursued through a multi-pronged attack. This was dubbed, by Marxist activist Rudi Dutschke, “the long march through the institutions.” Western civilization would be eradicated by gradually undermining the family, the local community, the church, the school, and perhaps most especially the university. Easy divorce, abortion on demand, heavy-handed interference with local autonomy, the infiltration of churches by radical priests and ministers preaching revolution instead of Christianity, the replacement of pro-American school curriculum with leftist agitprop, and the denigration of standards of excellence in the humanities as “dead-white-male hegemony” are all examples of the program in action.
By such means, the project of wrecking Western civilization has progressed pretty far. So why isn’t the proletariat casting off their chains and revolting?
Asking a different question leads us to the answer, and that question is, “Why have corporations enthusiastically joined the cultural Marxists in their program of civilizational destruction?”
First off, do you know the old aphorism, “If you’re at a poker table and you don’t know who the mark is, you’re the mark”? If you answered, “Because corporations care about these issues,” well, you’re the mark. The NBA plays games in China, where people are enslaved in sweatshops. Do you really think they moved the all-star game out of Charlotte, where men are shut out of women’s bathrooms, out of a great concern for human rights?
Many of our most “social justice”-oriented corporations have manufacturing facilities located in China as well. Our big banks are great pals with the Saudi royal family, people who execute homosexuals. I would think that is a little more serious than declining to sell a lesbian couple a wedding cake, but what do I know?
Those at the top of our giant corporations generally don’t care about these issues, at least not in any serious way: they care about becoming richer and richer and securing their positions against any potential threats.
The right answer as to why corporations have “joined” (“co-opted” is more like it) the cultural Marxists is that at some point, our corporate masters figured out that as the progress of wrecking Western culture progressed, people were becoming not revolutionary agents of change, but passive consumers of corporate swill and compliant workers penned in cubicles, nourished by fluorescent grow-lamps. (I am not claiming that corporate CEOs and boards are sophisticated social theorists who have explicitly traced this connection, just that at some point, they noticed, “Hey, this is working out pretty well for us!”) A key point in this learning process was likely when corporations found out that if they just offered “counter-cultural” rock stars enough money, those rock stars would happily sell soda or credit cards. And such ads, offering packaged versions of sixties-era “individualism” and “rebellion,” were very effective at selling products, enabling marketing messages to slip right past the flower children’s wariness of big corporations.
Corporations found out that without a healthy culture, people are not natural Marxists but natural couch potatoes. With no extended family, no effective church, and no healthy local community to support their lives, people don’t form revolutionary cells: they buy a case of beer or renew their Xanax prescription and spend their non-working hours watching NFL games and the Lifetime network and various types of pornography. This dull, sedated existence is punctuated by certain “feast days,” such as Black Friday, when one can turn over lots of one’s money to corporations; New Year’s Eve, when one can consume lots of the mind-altering substances they sell; and the Super Bowl, perhaps the high holy day of American consumptionism, when the NFL tells us that we don’t even need real families, because “Football Is Family.” Or alternatively, we might watch Walmart, coopting counter-cultural icon John Lennon, telling us to “Come together [as a family] right now, over” … Walmart.
Thus we arrive at a rich irony: the cultural Marxists filling our academic departments of X and Y studies and serving as Chief Inquisitors for Diversity Complaints are acting not as the vanguard of the proletariat but as the unwitting foot soldiers of the corporate elite.
Gene Callahan teaches economics and computer science at St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn and is the author of Oakeshott on Rome and America.
(Caveat lector: This book works well as a political thriller, but this review will focus on some topical ideas presented in the course of that thriller. And since the most important idea in this novel is fully revealed only toward the end, there will be a major spoiler.)
In the first few pages of Claes Ryn’s political suspense novel, A Desperate Man, we are privy to the thoughts of one of its main characters, Helen Bittenberg: “This was going to be the perfect vacation … there would not even be any temporary aggravations or uncertainties. … How delightful it was and would continue to be for all of them.”
With these ironic words, Ryn, a political philosopher at Catholic University, introduces one of the book’s major themes: most people want their lives to be comfortable and untroubled, and so will tend to close their eyes and plug their ears when trouble is looming. The Bittenbergs’ family vacation is going to be anything but perfect, and aggravation and uncertainty will be constantly present. In fact, those very thoughts of Helen’s occur as she worries about the failure of her husband, Richard, to meet the family for lunch in Paris.
We next meet Richard, an academic historian of ideas who is entering a crisis, having come to believe that “the leaders of the United States are destroying the country he loved.” From that point on, the novel repeatedly alternates between chapters concerned with Helen’s increasingly frantic investigation as to where her husband has disappeared to, and chapters on Richard that chiefly discuss earlier events that lead him to a momentous decision.
Richard’s sections fill in a lot of backstory on the man—sometimes too much for this reader: did we need to know that Richard’s best friend in high school was “the son of a businessman”?—but in this historical material other important themes in the novel are introduced.
For example, Richard’s father, Peter, who was a doctor, served in World War II as a field surgeon, a job for which he had no training. He had great moral qualms about this: was he really qualified to treat these wounded soldiers? When he expressed those qualms to his superior officer, the man dismissed them out of hand: he told Peter that the alternative to Peter doing surgery was not a highly skilled surgeon magically appearing out of nowhere, but someone even less qualified performing the operations. And that superior related to Peter an aphorism that is a central theme of this novel: “You make do with what you’ve got! That’s all you can do!”
In these sections, I found myself disturbed by the name of Richard Bittenberg’s friend Donald Kiefer, as I could never completely keep images of Donald Trump and Kiefer Sutherland out of my mind while he was active in the story. But Donald does accurately describe our current financial system: “What Donald kept saying about the world of investment banking and its relation to the Federal Reserve, the U.S. Treasury Department, the U.S. Congress, and the International Monetary Fund, suggested that ruthless financial interests were engaged in virtual looting in the American and international markets.”
As Richard’s despair about the current state of his country deepens, about a year and a half before the family trip to Europe, he meets a fan of his work, Herbert Vandenhorst. Vanderhorst had held many high government positions, in both Republican and Democratic administrations, in the past, as well as having had extensive experience in corporate America. After gauging Bittenberg in person, Vanderhorst invites him to join a conspiracy: Vanderhorst and a cadre of like-minded people, including congressmen, high-ranking military officers, law-enforcement personnel, and important figures in the media and in industry, are plotting a coup to overthrow the U.S. government. They are all risking the death penalty for treason by doing this, but they are united in the belief that America has gone so far off the rails that only extreme measures can rescue it.
Richard decides to join, and his already busy life becomes even more harried. The most difficult aspect of his decision, aside from the possibility of losing his life, is the secrecy necessary to the undertaking: even his beloved wife Helen must be kept in the dark about what he is up to, mainly to protect her.
The conspirators’ discussions of their plot offer Ryn many opportunities to introduce what are almost certainly his own views on the current state of our polity. For instance, on the media: “But the media and journalism are dominated by people who help generate and justify the present order of things. … People who want a career in those fields have to give proof of allegiance to the reigning mind-set, or at least not be dissenters in any serious way.”
Or on “intellectuals” whose real job is not to think new thoughts but to justify those in power: “Some of these courtier intellectuals imagine that they’re formulating timeless ideas. They are too conceited and provincial to understand that they’re just pandering to the powers that be. They’re buttressing the system, which also rewards them handsomely. They’re bought and paid for, morally and financially.”
And in the current state of American politics: “In order to advanced to the top these days you have to be an experienced, cunning, clever, brutal crook.”
The conspiracy progresses, and the coup seemingly has a fair shot at success. The plan involves simultaneously assassinating both the president and vice president, and then using the conspiracy’s military insiders to achieve control of Washington and its media insiders to spin the events as a terrorist attack on our government.
But as the planning proceeds, Ryn raises a troubling question: are comfortable, affluent, postmodern Americans in any condition to actually take decisive political action? A conversation Richard has with his friend Robert expresses Ryn’s doubts:
Either you fuss and worry about everything … or you decide that you’re in, and then you give it your all … that’s the kind of commitment that people like you and me have such difficulty making because we’ve lived our entire lives in a different world. Our deepest reflexes are conditioned by fairly tranquil circumstances … we’re probably too civilized—no, that’s not quite what I mean, I mean we, too, are infected by our progressively corrupt culture.
In another passage, Ryn seems to be predicting the current election:
The media establishment formed a protective wall around the existing order. Individuals or movements that raised issues potentially dangerous to the powers-that-be were sooner or later co-opted, discredited, or destroyed outright. Before serious challengers could achieve real political momentum, they were brought low by scandal, innuendo, or fear mongering. Only persons who accepted the reigning moral, political, economic, and cultural order could achieve political influence.
Yes. The only way an individual might actually be able to survive the media onslaught that descends on every outsider candidate would be if he:
1) Is very wealthy, so he doesn’t have to worry about the donor class rejecting him.
2) Doesn’t care in the least about scandal. His reputation already is scandalous!
3) Is an egomaniac so that the constant attempts at smearing him simply slide off him.
4) Is a master manipulator of the media, so that he can outplay them at their games.
So, the choices are:
1) Elect someone fitting the above description, if anyone like that should happen to come along; or
2) Just accept that the status quo will continue on and on.
As the moment for action draws nearer, Richard learns that part of the master plan—as in any decent conspiracy, members of this one are told details only on a need-to-know basis—includes shooting any soldiers or cops who stand in the way of the coup, however innocently, and the execution of many people understood to be too strongly linked to the regime being overthrown to be allowed to live. Richard at this point essentially “flips out.”
The other conspirators tell him that any revolution has to eliminate key opponents, and that he is “just another nervous Nellie who can’t stand the heat in the kitchen.” Richard is hiding behind “his principles. … Those principles are his pride, but they’re phony—disconnected from the world we actually live in. They’re excuses for backing out of difficult situations. They are dressed up as something fine and noble, but they’re nothing but an escape from confronting reality. … Even the noblest purposes sometimes require making alliances with bad people.”
But Richard’s pangs of conscience overwhelm him and lead him to desert the conspiracy. The attempted coup fails, partially due to Richard’s absence. Shortly later Richard’s mentor dies of a stroke, broken by the failure of the coup. Another leading conspirator, Gordon Bunker, shows up at Richard’s house and demands that Richard come with him, to a bar, as it turns out. There, somewhat drunk, he lays into Richard. Bunker tells Richard that he lacked respect for Vandenhorst: “You, the bookish professor, had to second-guess this very experienced, knowledgeable man who knew a lot—from practice, not theory—about how the world works. You had to sit in moral judgment of him!”
No, Richard protests, it was a matter of his conscience: he could not in good conscience support the things that had to be done for the coup to succeed. Bunker is having none of it: “The plans rattled you and became your excuse for withdrawing. The real reason was that you simply couldn’t take the pressure any longer.”
When Richard again invokes his conscience, Gordon has had it: “Listen to you! Can’t you hear the sanctimoniousness? If you weren’t so damn conceited, it might have occurred to you to rely on the judgment of someone who really does know the world, someone like Herb. But you assume that you knew best, didn’t you? You saw more deeply than anybody else, didn’t you? You had a much finer conscience. You had no reason to give Herb the benefit of the doubt. No, in the end you treated him with the same moral condescension as you treated Noah [another conspirator]. … You’d lived your life in protected, cushioned surroundings. Your imagination failed when you had to size a very unusual situation. … The choice for you … was between an imperfect coup and no coup. You didn’t want an imperfect coup, so what you got, the status quo, must be what you wanted. Right?”
Ryn’s message here is spot-on: If we are going to overthrow a corrupt system, we can do so only with the resources actually at our disposal. I might wish that Buddha, or St. Francis, or Lao-Tse were around at this moment in our history to lead a perfectly pure revolt against the militaristic, amoral oligarchy currently ruling us. Heck, I’d happily settle for Dwight Eisenhower or Calvin Coolidge. But none of those people seem to be available. If we wait for perfection, the current system will continue indefinitely, until it produces some global catastrophe like a nuclear war with Russia. We aren’t living in Eden: perfection is not an option. We have to make do with what we’ve got.
Gene Callahan teaches economics and computer science at St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn and is the author of Oakeshott on Rome and America.
Distributism is the rather awkward name given to a program of political economy formulated chiefly by G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, two of the most prominent English writers of the early 20th century. Both Catholics, they sought to turn the social teaching of Popes Leo XIII and Pius XI into a concrete program of action. They rejected socialism, believing that private property was an essential component of human flourishing, but they also rejected the existing capitalist system as concentrating private property in far too few hands.
Distributism has garnered increased interest of late, due among other things to the social commentary of Pope Francis. Notwithstanding its Catholic origins, many non-Catholics have also embraced distributism over the years. Dorothy L. Sayers, E.F. Schumacher, and Christopher Lasch were influenced by its ideas, as has been the Spanish worker cooperative Mondragón.
Chesterton and Belloc shared a diagnosis for what they saw as the ills of the England of their day: the problem was not private property, as Marxists argued, but the fact that private property owners were scarce. As Chesterton put it in The Outline of Sanity: “The truth is that what we call Capitalism ought to be called Proletarianism. The point of it is not that some people have capital, but that most people only have wages because they do not have capital.”
When “Chesterbelloc”—as G.B. Shaw named the pair—talked about property, their focus was on capital goods, not consumption goods. They would not be impressed by arguments showing that, while American workers may be totally dispossessed of the means of production, at least they have 40-inch LCD televisions and smart phones.
Belloc understood what had occurred over the last several centuries of Western political development as a regression to conditions resembling those of the late Roman Empire, in which a few men owned great landed estates while the masses owned little or nothing in the way of productive property. In The Servile State, he wrote:
The two marks, then, defining the Capitalist State are: (1) That the citizens thereof are politically free: i.e. can use or withhold at will their possessions or their labour, but are also (2) divided into capitalist and proletarian in such proportions that the State as a whole is not characterised by the institution of ownership among free citizens, but by the restriction of ownership to a section markedly less than the whole, or even to a small minority.
Chesterton and Belloc were not the only ones thinking along these lines in the early decades of the 20th century. Karl Polanyi was a Hungarian economic historian and political philosopher who sought to highlight how an economy is always embedded in a larger social system. His 1944 book, The Great Transformation, detailed many of the ways in which the transition from the medieval economy to the capitalism of today occurred. While not every jot and tittle of Polanyi’s case has survived subsequent historical research, his basic thesis remains unscathed: capitalists often deliberately created a proletariat by legislative action.
A recent paper by David Meredith and Deborah Oxley in The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britain, for example, provides evidence that “one-tenth of the English population in 1800 was slowly starving to death.” The authors describe how for the poor:
A few eggs, a cow for milk, a potato ground, all mattered. But over the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries self-provisioning came under serious attack. A padlock was placed on nature’s larder. First … traditional wage supplements such as gleaning and sweeping, and the collection of firewood from the forests, became criminal offenses; items of a ‘base nature’—rabbits, hares, fish—were redefined as private property, and their capture became a felony … Second, enclosure contributed to a class of ‘landless labourers’ without farming strips for growing household provisions, and they likewise suffered from a contraction of common lands upon which a cow might be kept or firewood harvested.
Their research into the relative heights of various occupants of the British Isles shows that in Scotland and Ireland, where the move towards modern capitalism lagged, people were taller—and thus, they conclude, better nourished—than in England, especially compared to English urban centers, where the creation of a proletariat had gone the furthest. London had the least healthy population of all.
Considering these facts, we might suspect that English capitalists, in need of cheap labor, passed laws to starve the English peasantry off of their land and force them into factories as the peasants’ only means of survival. If the proletariat was deliberately created by legislation and is not a spontaneous phenomenon, as many defenders of the status quo contend, that creation might also be undone by legislative action.
But if that is so, what direction should we head? The one recommended by the distributists sought to combine the best elements of various other visions of political economy.
Distributism shares with Marxism the goal of the workers owning the means of production and of eliminating the alienation of the worker from his product. (Of course, distributists meant that the workers should really own the means of production—not, as communists usually did, that the workers should “own” them through the intermediary of the state.) And distributist class analysis resembles Marxist class analysis in obvious ways.
Along with free-market economists, however, distributists recognize the importance of private property. Further, modern distributists recognize the crucial role of something that early advocates such as Chesterton and Belloc did not have the theoretical resources to articulate: namely, the vital role of true market prices in achieving economic efficiency. As Friedrich Hayek put it, market prices are able to incorporate knowledge of the “particular circumstances of time and place” into a worldwide economic system.
Distributism also contains aspects of communitarianism: with capital owned on a local level, owners are more likely to engage with the social and civic life of their community. Chesterton liked to refer to distributism as “real democracy.”
And finally—something that Belloc stressed—distributism has a conservative aspect: it posits as a laudable end not some utopian experiment in untested social arrangements but a socio-economic system that we already know is workable, from both historical and contemporary evidence. Furthermore, because workers themselves are the owners of capital goods, they are less likely to be forced to abandon their communities and extended families in order to keep a good job. There of course may be efficiency trade-offs in choosing to stay put rather than moving to some distant but more profitable location to find some work. But under distributism, workers would evaluate these trade-offs for themselves, rather than having some global corporate entity send them, willy-nilly, thousands of miles from their family and community—or finding themselves suddenly unemployed, as the modern corporation is loath to give its workers even a moment’s notice before they are escorted out of their workplace and onto the street by corporate security.
Our current system of global capitalism has its strong points. Capital can be moved around the globe swiftly in response to changing circumstances, something that would likely be much more difficult under distributism. And global capital has strong incentives to innovate, given that capital in one place is in competition for profits with all other capital around the world. Would a locally based manufacturer, favored by other local businesses, be as likely to embrace some risky new technology? Perhaps not.
When the workers of a given company are also its owners, evidence shows that they have a harder time adjusting their workforce to changing economic conditions. In fact, workers are liable to overpay for capital goods in order to preserve their jobs.
So what if we actually implemented distributist reforms and we found that large corporations continued to dominate our economic landscape for reasons like those above? If that happened, our situation would not have changed much from the status quo, but at least on the margin we would have a few more local businesses and family-owned farms.
Let us examine some existing instances of economic activities that are more or less distributist in character.
Mondragón is the world’s largest worker cooperative, with 74,000 employees, and the tenth largest company in Spain. Founded in 1956, its nearly six decades of continuous operation are strong evidence that distributist ideas are not utopian. Centered in the Basque region of Spain, the creative impetus behind the organization came from Father José María Arizmendiarrieta, who was inspired by Catholic social teaching.
Various cautions have been put forward about employing Mondragón as a paradigm that others might emulate. One is the unique, apparently quite charismatic personality of Father Arizmendiarrieta: not every potential worker-owned cooperative will have a similar figure to lead it in its early days. A second consideration is the special character of the Basque region, whose residents seem to have felt a greater sense of solidarity than is typical in a similarly sized locale due to their history as a linguistic and ethnic minority in a Spanish kingdom. Lastly, Mondragón grew and flourished in an era when the Spanish economy was highly protectionist. Could it have prospered in a Spain more open to world markets?
Mondragón’s history has not been untroubled. Despite worker ownership, the corporation experienced serious labor unrest in the 1970s. In 2013 one of its major subsidiaries, Fagor, declared bankruptcy and was sold by its parent. Other problems emerge upon exploring the company’s history in greater detail. In fact, they are the very ones that would be predicted to hamper distributist enterprises: a difficulty in radically changing course when necessary, an inability to adjust the workforce to properly reflect market conditions, and the tendency to invest capital to save jobs, rather than directing it to its most efficient use.
(The above material on Mondragón is largely drawn from William Foote Whyte and Kathleen King Whyte’s Making Mondragón: The Growth and Dynamics of the Worker Cooperative Complex.)
We next come to a very odd type of worker-owned enterprise—one that is not actually owned in the traditional sense at all, and in which the workers, at least directly, earn nothing in terms of cash compensation: open-source software projects.
These anomalous enterprises constitute a valuable part of our economic landscape. For instance, Linux, built and maintained by volunteers and freely available to all, is the world’s most used operating system, as the basis for the mobile-device platform Android, as well as for many embedded systems such as cable set-top boxes, networking components, robotics-control systems, and medical systems.
Python, also maintained by a volunteer workforce, has become an extremely important programming language and is becoming a mainstay in scientific computing. Git and GitHub, also open-source projects, are now the most popular way to maintain public software repositories. And there are numerous other examples of this phenomenon.
Rather than earning money for their products, the volunteers who develop open-source software work for reputation. Lists of who has contributed the most to various open-source endeavors are publicly available and readily translate into job offers from more traditional enterprises.
This situation does not fit comfortably into mainstream economic analysis, but to be fair it is certainly not the kind of business model that the founders of distributism envisioned either. Nevertheless, it more closely resembles a distributist model than a traditionally capitalist one, as the means of production are the programmers’ own computers.
The communications revolution has made distributism more feasible in other ways as well. What is called the “sharing economy” has been a hot subject in the news, and in city councils, as companies like Airbnb and Uber have cut into the business of traditional hotels and taxi services, respectively. Both companies can be characterized, to some extent, as distributist enterprises.
Airbnb, by allowing homeowners to treat their property as small hotels, turns ordinary homes into capital goods, something of which Chesterton and Belloc would have approved. Uber does the same with people’s automobiles.
I have personal experience as an Airbnb host, having rented out my cabin in the Poconos for a few months through the service. I essentially worked as a hotel maid for that time, but I am sure my experience was very different than that of an employee of a hotel chain: I was working at my own pace, under my own direction. Making beds or mopping floors is much less onerous when you are doing it for your own business.
Many critics of the sharing economy complain that companies like Airbnb and Uber should count the people providing rooms and rides as employees rather than independent contractors. These companies, critics contend, are exploiting their workers by not providing minimum-wage guarantees, overtime, healthcare benefits, unemployment insurance, and so on.
I have two responses. First of all, I can state for a fact that “working for” Airbnb was nothing like being an employee at a traditional company: I never met a single person from Airbnb and only once corresponded with someone from the company, to resolve a payment issue. Airbnb did not set my hours, prevent me from subcontracting, or tell me anything about how to do my job, other than demanding that I fulfill the promises I made on their website about rates and accommodations. And more importantly, things like minimum wages and employer-provided benefits are the very sort of provisions that for Belloc marked the return of servile conditions, in which the proletariat would lack all independence but would be “well cared for” by its corporate masters. (The fact that the proletariat is now considered unable even to secure its own contraceptives without a company providing them is a sign of how far down this road we have traveled.)
More traditionally structured worker-owned businesses have also succeeded in the United States. The state of Vermont actively encourages worker-owned cooperatives, and the most prominent one, Cabot, is probably familiar to many buyers of cheese and other dairy products. And PBS Newshour recently detailed how New Belgium Brewing in Colorado became employee-owned and is achieving high levels of job satisfaction as a result, with workers “pouring their hearts” into the business on account of their stake in it.
Finally, I will mention another worker-owned enterprise with which I was involved: OTA Limited Partnership, a stocks and options trading company where I worked for several years around the turn of the century. I began as a consultant but was soon asked to join the company as a regular employee, which also meant becoming a part owner since the employees owned the company. I accepted, and not long after starting full time I went to a colleague’s office and asked him what the company vacation policy was. He looked at me oddly. “There is no vacation policy: you’re one of the owners. You take vacation when you feel you can afford to.”
I left his office with the odd feeling of being treated as an adult at work.
For anyone attracted to the distributist model as one that respects the dignity and freedom of the individual, the obvious question is how to proceed in achieving it. This is one arena in which Chesterton, in particular, came up short. Understandably adverse to simple confiscation of property from existing owners—for how, exactly, could the confiscators decide exactly which holdings were amassed through “crony capitalism” and which through honest innovation and work?—he recommended that the state compensate large landowners for their land and distribute it to small ones. The problem with this idea is that the funds to pay the compensation have to be taxed away from somebody: if from the large landowners, then they are just having their property confiscated by a different route. But if the people to receive the land are taxed to pay for the public-domain seizures, then it would have been more sensible just to let them buy the land themselves.
I recommend that the way forward here is to recognize that markets always exist within some institutional framework. (This is a fact that Belloc recognized in his recommendations for advancing the distributist vision.) For the last couple of centuries, that framework has favored large concentrations of capital. If we change the tilt of the playing field to favor small proprietors, family farms, and worker-owned cooperatives, then first of all we are undoing a past injustice, and, secondly, we are not forbidding larger enterprises—which will still flourish when they truly have a significant edge in an industry over smaller ones.
I suggest the issue comes down to one of vision: do we see the common person as essentially a passive being, happiest giving up control of his or her own life to corporate and government experts, who will care for us with benefit packages and guaranteed levels of consumption goods? Or is the ideal for each person to exercise judgment over his or her life’s course to the maximum extent possible, accepting the risks that go along with independence? If the latter, then shifting our legal framework to enable more people to live independent lives is a risk worth taking.
In the wake of the Paris attacks, historian Niall Ferguson has suggested that Western Civilization is now reprising the story of the Roman Empire in the 5th century A.D., with Muslims cast in the roles of the invading barbarians. But his recent invocation of “The Fall of Rome” is a rhetorical maneuver and not a serious attempt to engage with the history of the late Roman Empire: rather than a genuine search for insights, Ferguson has summoned a weary specter from a haunted mansion, knowing well even before he did so just what words of warning it would wail.
Ferguson opens by summoning of the spirit of Gibbon, only to reject his main thesis:
True, Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire represented Rome’s demise as a slow burn over a millennium. But a new generation of historians, such as Bryan Ward-Perkins and Peter Heather, has raised the possibility that the process of Roman decline was in fact sudden — and bloody — rather than smooth: a ‘violent seizure . . . by barbarian invaders’ that destroyed a complex civilization within the span of a single generation.”
However, as James J. O’Donnell notes, Ward-Perkins and Heather focused on the material and military aspects of Roman history, and ignored the spiritual and cultural dimensions of what occurred. Ferguson does not quite suffer from the same blindness, but he does not really face up to what he sees through a glass darkly:
Let us be clear about what is happening. Like the Roman Empire in the early fifth century, Europe has allowed its defenses to crumble. As its wealth has grown, so its military prowess has shrunk, along with its self-belief. It has grown decadent in its shopping malls and sports stadiums. At the same time, it has opened its gates to outsiders who have coveted its wealth without renouncing their ancestral faith.
So, Europe’s “self-belief” has shrunk, and it has become “decadent.” Perhaps there is a reason that this has happened, other than the fact that Europe has not been listening to Niall Ferguson’s call for empire? Perhaps as Europe rejected its Christian heritage, and embraced the moral nihilism of Nietzsche and Foucault, it ceased to have any basis for “self-belief”? And perhaps decadent consumerism is a symptom of a civilization that no longer believes in anything more than “utility maximization”? And, if that is so, what will adopting a more aggressive attitude towards the Muslim world avail it?
Certainly, every decent person wants all governments to prevent murderous attacks on their citizens. But how will increasing Europe’s military prowess or the efficacy of its border patrols solve the more fundamental problem that many of its residents no longer see any point to life other than acquiring nicer electronic gadgets, great vacation homes, and good champagne?
Ferguson continues with the interesting observation that, “As Gibbon saw, convinced monotheists pose a grave threat to a secular empire.” Note the conclusion that follows logically from Ferguson’s hypothesis: Rome was correct to persecute Christians, as they were the “convinced monotheists” of the time! And in any case, describing Rome as a “secular empire” overlooks the fact that the Roman emperors themselves understood the extreme difficulty of maintaining a purely secular empire, and were always desperately seeking a spiritual basis for their rule, at various times trying a return to paganism, Stoic philosophy, the cult of Sol Invictus, and, finally, Christianity.
But Ferguson then lets the cat out of the bag:
I do not know enough about the fifth century to be able to quote Romans who described each new act of barbarism as unprecedented, even when it had happened multiple times before; or who issued pious calls for solidarity after the fall of Rome, even when standing together in fact meant falling together; or who issued empty threats of pitiless revenge, even when all they intended to do was to strike a melodramatic pose.
Ferguson here admits that his whole analogy is flimsy, and he really has no idea how similar these two different situations are. “The Fall of Rome” was invoked not as a concrete historical situation which we might carefully study for hints as to what we might do today, but as an instance of what Michael Oakeshott called “emblematic characters and episodes,” such as “Caesar crossing the Rubicon… Canute on the seashore, King Arthur, William Tell… Davey Crockett… Colonel Custer making his last stand.” “The Fall of Rome” here is part of a “storehouse” of “fables” in which interested parties may “spend an afternoon routing round for themselves in the hope of picking up a bargain,” a storehouse in which “parties of schoolchildren will be shown round by their teachers.”
Ferguson quotes Ward-Perkins putting this fable to the use for which it was processed and placed in the storehouse: “Romans before the fall… were as certain as we are today that their world would continue for ever substantially unchanged. They were wrong. We would be wise not to repeat their complacency.” (As Oakeshott wryly notes, “The Huns and Vandals are always with us…”).
But, as O’Donnell notes in the review linked to above, “Ward-Perkins too is so Rome-centric that he misses important questions also missed by Heather. Any account of how Rome declined and fell is obligated, I think, to say what it imagines the alternative to have been.”
The Romans’ civilization was spent: actual Romans had ceased to man the Empire centuries earlier, as the impetus which had motivated them, the pagan ideals of the Roman Republic, had disappeared by the first century B.C. (My book, Oakeshott on Rome and America, documents this breakdown, and it is hardly the first to do so.) From early in the second century, the Emperors were generally not only not Roman but not even Italian, and the legions were increasingly recruited from outside Italy as well. By the fifth century, Rome was employing barbarian generals and mercenaries not because of Roman “complacency,” but because there was no one else to take the job. As Voegelin writes, the civilizational force of Rome had collapsed with the Republic, but “historical factors had tipped the scale for the survival of Rome just long enough to carry the state over into the imperial expansion and then keep it going by the organized plunder of the orbis terrarum…”
So essentially, what Ward-Perkins and Ferguson are asking is, “Is there any reason that this organized plunder of most of the known world couldn’t have continued a while longer? If the Romans had just been more self-confident and less complacent about robbing everyone else, they might have go on for a few more centuries!”
Ferguson evokes this cautionary fable because he is worried that Europe will succumb to Muslim terrorists. But these terrorists (in a horrific act) managed to kill somewhat over 100 French citizens on a single day of this year. Meanwhile, French abortionists kill over 500 would-be French citizens every day of the year, year after year, and far from protecting these victims, the French government subsidizes their deaths. When a civilization is wiping itself out that fast, it is a little fatuous to put the blame on opportunistic parasites who are invading its dying body.
Further, all men are to be loved equally. But since you cannot do good to all, you are to pay special regard to those who, by the accidents of time, or place, or circumstance, are brought into closer connection with you. –Augustine, On Christian Doctrine
In The Atlantic, George Mason University economist Alexander Tabarrok has penned a highly tendentious case for doing away with all national borders. He attempts to cast everyone who doubts the wisdom of his radical proposal as a moral reprobate, unworthy of membership in any moral community, be it Christian, egalitarian, utilitarian, or other. But in doing so, he undermines his very own position as a libertarian, who is as such in favor of private property.
He begins by complaining that “Barbed-wire, concrete walls, and gun-toting guards confine people to the nation-state of their birth.” However, Tabarrok here conflates two very different phenomena: The first is being trapped inside some social group. That, I agree, is unjust and ought to be deplored: if someone wants to leave, say, North Korea, or the George Mason University economics faculty, they ought to be able to do so!
But that is quite different from the claim that everyone who has a right to leave a social group also has the right to join any other group they want. The fact that Tabarrok should not be imprisoned in the GMU economics department does not imply that he is free to join the MIT economics department if he leaves GMU. Nor does MIT turning Tabarrok down imply that he is “confined” inside the GMU econ department: he might work for a bank, or another university, or even retire gracefully, and, with alcoholic breath, hoe his cabbages. (The late George Mason economist James Buchanan once contemplated this option after surveying the state of the economics profession.) So why should the freedom to leave North Korea imply that, say, Mongolia has to welcome the emigrant in?
Tabarrok goes on to point out that “Variations in wealth and income created by these differences [in national circumstances] are magnified by governments that suppress entrepreneurship and promote religious intolerance, gender discrimination, or other bigotry.”
OK, so governments should not do these things. And the implication of this for immigration policy is…? precisely nothing. Some families suppress their kids’ entrepreneurial drive, promote religious intolerance, discriminate against some of their children based on gender, and promote other forms of bigotry. Does Tabarrok therefore admit that he is wronging the children of these families by not allowing them to join his own household? If not, then on what basis does he accuse nations that exercise similar discretion over who they allow to join their polity of this iniquity?
The overwhelming majority of would-be immigrants want little more than to make a better life for themselves and their families by moving to economic opportunity and participating in peaceful, voluntary trade. But lawmakers and heads of state quash these dreams with state-sanctioned violence—forced repatriation, involuntary detention, or worse…
Hmm, but what about the advocates of private property, who might, say, quash one’s dreams of using part of Ted Turner’s two-million acres of ranch and forest land, or of enjoying Bill Gates’s fabulous $147 million house? Libertarians such as Tabarrok are perfectly OK with “state-sanctioned violence” quashing those dreams! Should these dreams seem frivolous, consider that literally hundreds of homeless people could live comfortably inside Gates’s 66,000-square-foot house, and many more might be able to make a living from Turner’s ranch lands. And if Tabarrok respond that these would not be “peaceful, voluntary trades,” it is sufficient to note that none of these homeless people voluntarily agreed to Turner’s ownership of two million acres of land, or to Gates occupying the equivalent of a couple of hundred studio apartments. These arrangements were imposed upon them, willy nilly, by men with guns and barbed wire.
Tabbarok reaches a crescendo of moral indignation with a sweeping condemnation of anyone who believes a nation might have the right to decide who can join it:
No standard moral framework, be it utilitarian, libertarian, egalitarian, Rawlsian, Christian, or any other well-developed perspective, regards people from foreign lands as less entitled to exercise their rights—or as inherently possessing less moral worth—than people lucky to have been born in the right place at the right time. Nationalism, of course, discounts the rights, interests, and moral value of ‘the Other,’ but this disposition is inconsistent with our fundamental moral teachings and beliefs.
The amount of balderdash in this single paragraph is impressive. First of all, it sets up a false dichotomy between adherents to “standard moral frameworks”—all of whom apparently believe in wiping out all national borders—and “nationalists,” seemingly the only possible category of people who would resist Tabarrok’s call for doing away with the nation-state, and who feel foreigners “inherently possess less moral worth” than do non-foreigners.
And Tabarrok does not specify exactly how a nation exercising its sovereignty by controlling who can join it equates to regarding “people from foreign lands as less entitled to exercise their rights.” Every human group, if it is to survive, exercises control over who can and can’t join that group. If I announce tomorrow that I am now a tenured economics professor at GMU, presumably he will side with the rest of the faculty and tell me that I must apply for such a position, and only if the existing faculty agrees to hire me can I occupy it. Does this mean that Tabarrok thinks I am less entitled to exercise my rights than are existing GMU faculty members? By his own logic, it does!
And what about his plea for doing away with the luck factor of having “been born in the right place at the right time”? I do not know if Tabarrok has children, but if he does, I assume he has been saving for their college education. But there are millions upon millions of children in the world whose parents have not been so fortunate as to have a well-paid position at a (government-funded) American university, and thus have not been able to set aside any savings for their children’s university educations at all. Is Tabarrok willing to follow up on this principle, and allow all of those children to access the savings he has set aside for his own offspring? After all, why should the fact that Tabarrok’s kids happen to have been born “in the right place at the right time” give them privileged access to his college savings accounts?
Finally, he declares that “Freedom of movement is a basic human right.”
Grandiose declarations of rights generally sound noble, but the devil is in the details, details which Tabarrok completely fails to provide. Does he really mean that everyone should be free to wander about and settle down wherever they please? If my hippie commune and I want to set up tent in Tabarrok’s backyard, will he freely acknowledge that we are just exercising our “basic human right” to freedom of movement?
Given that Tabarrok is a libertarian, and thus an advocate of a very strong view of property rights, it seems unlikely that he really believes in “freedom of movement”: for most of the world’s population, private property is surely a much greater barrier to their freedom of movement than are national borders. (Note: I am not, therefore, against private property. In the right dosage, it is a fine and useful social institution.) No, Tabarrok is all for restricting the freedom of movement when it is done in the name of private property, which he fancies, and only against it when it is done in the name of a nation-state, which, as a libertarian, he dislikes.
Of course, nation-states are not families, or economics departments, or businesses. But they are coherent social groupings. And Tabarrok has simply offered no reason why nation-states should be regarded as unlike every other social group, and be denied the ability to control who can join them.
Let me emphasize just how radical Tabarrok’s preferred immigration regime is. He is not arguing that our immigration policy should be less restrictive, an argument I might find plausible. No, he is arguing that the United States simply not have borders at all, at least when it comes to immigration. So what if 10,000 ISIS fighters wish to enter our country next week, with the intention of waging jihad on U.S. soil? Tabarrok could only reply, given his principles, that we would be treating them as of “inherently possessing less moral worth” if we don’t welcome their effort to establish an Islamic state within our borders.
Gene Callahan teaches computer science at St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn and is the author of Oakeshott on Rome and America. (The author would like to thank Bob Murphy and Josiah Neeley for helpful comments on this post.)
John Gray, emeritus professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics, is an enigma. He began his intellectual life on the left but moved right in the late 1970s, becoming a fan of Nobel Prize-winning free-market economist F.A. Hayek. Gray’s libertarianism was tempered, however, by studying British philosopher Michael Oakeshott’s critique of “rationalism in politics.” During the 1990s, Gray was associated with New Labour—the center-left ideology that brought Tony Blair to power in Westminster—and he became a prominent critic of global capitalism with his 1998 book False Dawn.
Recently he appears to have embraced something of a nihilistic stoicism, whose spirit suffuses The Soul of the Marionette. In these pages he undertakes a sort of jazz improvisation on the theme of human freedom, surveying an omnium-gatherum of earlier writers’ and cultures’ thoughts on the topic from the point of view of a “freedom-skeptic.”
Gray sees the modern, supposedly secular belief in human freedom as a creed that will not admit its character: “Throughout much of the world … the Gnostic faith that knowledge can give humans a freedom that no other creature can possess has become the predominant religion.” Gray finds the Gnostic frame of mind even among “hard-headed” scientists:
The crystallographer J. D. Bernal … envisioned ‘an erasure of individuality and mortality’ in which human beings would cease to be distinct physical entities … ‘consciousness itself might end or vanish … becoming masses of atoms in space communicating by radiation, and ultimately perhaps resolving itself entirely into light.’
In another vignette of a thinker he finds relevant to his inquiry, Gray discusses the philosophy of the 19th-century Italian writer Giacomo Leopardi, most famous for penning the classic poem “L’Infinito.” Leopardi was a staunch materialist who nevertheless found religion to be a necessary illusion. He understood Christianity as an essential response to the rise of skepticism in Greco-Roman culture; in Leopardi’s view, “What was destroying the [ancient] world was the lack of illusion.” Christianity had now gone into decline, but this was not to be celebrated; as Gray quotes Leopardi, “There is no doubt that the progress of reason and the extinction of illusions produce barbarism.” What was arising from the “secular creeds” of his time was only “the militant evangelism of Christianity in a more dangerous form.”
Gray finds Edgar Allan Poe’s vision of a world where “human reason could never grasp the nature of things” congenial and devotes several pages to the American poet. He also takes up the trope of the golem as evinced in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, declaring “Humans have too little self-knowledge to be able to fashion a higher version of themselves”—a view on the surface at odds with his later proclamations about the coming age of artificial intelligence.
Continuing his odyssey, Gray arrives at the isle—or rather, planet—of Stanislav Lem’s novel Solaris (which was made into a 2002 movie starring George Clooney). It features a water-covered world involved in “ontological auto-metamorphosis.” According to the “heretical” scientific theories its discovery spawned, the planet has a “sentient ocean”: Lem was prefiguring something like the Gaia hypothesis of James Lovelock that Gray has invoked favorably here and in earlier works.
Gray also takes interest in the work of renowned American science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, who wrote a series of novels that advanced one of the most compelling paranoid metaphysics of our time. Gray notes that Dick is an archetypal Gnostic, as shown by lines like “Behind the counterfeit universe lies God … it is not man who is estranged from God; it is God who is estranged from God.” For Dick, it is unlikely that anyone can ever penetrate to a “true” reality through the veil of illusion: “were we to penetrate [that veil] for any reason, this strange, veil-like dream would reinstate itself retroactively, in terms of our perceptions and in terms of our memory. The mutual dreaming would resume as before…”
Dick ultimately concluded that the flawed world he lived in was just a costume concealing the good world that is the true reality. But if this is so, Gray asks, how did this veil come into being? If an all-powerful God created it, then He must have wanted the veil to exist. But if it is the creation of some sub-deity, a Demiurge, then the “top” God is not all-powerful since he could not prevent the veil from coming into being. Of course, this is the ancient problem of theodicy restated in different terms, but it is to Gray’s credit that he recognizes it at play in Dick’s oeuvre.
And as Gray notes, Dick was a very modern Gnostic in that he incorporated into his philosophy the idea of an evolution towards higher states of being taking place over time. In fact, it is “not least when it is intensely hostile to religion” that modern thought most embraces tales of the historical redemption of humanity. Gray argues that “All modern philosophies in which history is seen as a process of human emancipation … are garbled versions of [the] Christian narrative.”
The next section of the book, called “In the puppet theatre,” begins with a look at the Aztec penchant for mass ritual killing. He quotes anthropologist Inga Clendinnen at length on the gruesome nature of the practice, including descriptions like: “On high occasions warriors carrying gourds of human blood or wearing the dripping skins of their captives ran through the streets … the flesh of their victims seethed in domestic cooking pots; human thighbones, scraped and dried, were set up in the courtyard of the households…”
Gray contends the Aztecs were superior to modern state-based killers in that their victims were not “seen as less than human.” But only two pages later he claims, “In the ritual killings, nothing was left of human pride. If they were warriors, the victims were denied any status they had in society” and were “trussed like deer,” which certainly makes it sound as though they were seen as less than human.
In any case, Gray views Aztec society as a lesson in the inevitability of human violence. We tamp it down in one place, only to see it pop back up in another. He is skeptical of statistics that seem to show a long-term decline in violence. He cites violence-caused famines and epidemics, deaths in labor camps, the gigantic U.S. prison population, the revival of torture in the most “civilized” societies, and other modern atrocities to call these figures into doubt. And he sees the false sense that we have overcome this human tendency to violence in “enlightened” Western societies as connected to our arrogant approach in dealing with “unenlightened” societies:
By intervening in societies of which they know nothing, western elites are advancing a future they believe is prefigured in themselves—a new world based on freedom, democracy and human rights. The results are clear—failed states, zones of anarchy and new and worse tyrannies; but in order that they may see themselves as world-changing figures, our leaders have chosen not to see what they have done.
Gray turns his attention to French Marxist Guy Debord, finding “nothing of interest” in his standard Marxist schema but noting that Debord was ahead of his time in analyzing celebrity. With work no longer giving life meaning, it is necessary that our “culture of celebrity” offers everyone “fifteen minutes of fame” to reconcile us to the “boredom of the rest of [our] lives.” He quotes Debord on the rising social importance of “media status”: “Where ‘media status’ has acquired infinitely more importance than the value of anything one might actually be capable of doing, it is normal for this status to be readily transferable…”
This quote gets at the heart of why in 2015 we see headline coverage of a dispute between singer Elton John and fashion designers Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana on the proper form for the family. Are fashion designers or pop songwriters experts on child development or the ethics of the family? If not, why is anyone paying any attention to this feud? Well, because they are celebrities with high “media status,” and that status is “readily transferable” to any other field whatsoever.
Bored modern individuals are also rootless. Gray sees the rise of the surveillance state as tied to that condition:
When people are locked into local communities they are subject to continuous informal monitoring of their behaviour. Modern individualism tends to condemn these communities because they repress personal autonomy … The informal controls on behavior that exist in a world of many communities are unworkable in a world of highly mobile individuals, so … near-ubiquitous technological monitoring is a consequence of the decline of cohesive societies that has occurred alongside the rising demand for individual freedom.
As The Soul of the Marionette draws to a close, Gray heads off into a sort of nature mysticism where his thinking is—to me, at least—at its most obscure. Considering climate change, he claims: “Whatever is done now, human expansion has triggered a shift that will persist for thousands of years. A sign of the planet healing itself, climate change will continue regardless of its impact on humankind.” But how does Gray know climate change is a “sign of the planet healing itself,” rather than, say, a sign of its decline or something the planet itself is completely indifferent to?
Gray’s gloomy vision seeps through in his prognosis for the human race too: “However it ends, the Anthropocene”—the epoch of humanity’s rule—“will be brief.” Again, I wonder how Gray knows this? Here he appears as the anti-Hegel, somehow sussing out the future of man much like the German philosopher, but from pessimistic rather than optimistic presuppositions.
Although Gray is an atheist and a materialist of some sort or another, he correctly understands what science can and can’t tell us:
Nothing carries so much authority today as science, but there is actually no such thing as ‘the scientific world-view.’ Science is a method of inquiry, not a view of the world. Knowledge is growing at accelerating speed; but no advance in science will tell us whether materialism is true or false, or whether humans possess free will.
He also gets at the deep meaning behind religious stories: “being divided from yourself goes with being self-aware. This is the truth in the Genesis myth: the Fall is not an event at the beginning of history, but the intrinsic condition of self-conscious beings.” (Albert Camus, like Gray a nonbeliever, understood this very well: see his novel The Fall.)
Yet there is a problem with the coherence of Gray’s outlook. He urges us to adopt a stoical attitude towards our predicament as marionettes. But if we are free to choose our attitude, why are we not also free to make other choices about our lives? Then again, perhaps Gray isn’t really to blame for this incoherence: it could be that some unknown puppeteer, pulling on Gray’s strings, made him write this book.
Gene Callahan teaches computer science at St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn and is the author of Oakeshott on Rome and America.
“Ideology” is a word with a number of meanings, but the most useful, I think, was put forward by Eric Voegelin. In his thought, “ideology” signifies the attempt to create an abstract “second reality” that somehow seems preferable to the real world for the ideologue. The ideologue then attempts to live in that constructed reality, and to force others to do so as well.
The attempt will, of course, fail, since we can only live in the real world. But that does not mean that a lot of damage won’t be done along the way. Let us begin by looking at a case (mostly) from the past, to gain a clearer picture of this conception of ideology apart from current concerns.
In the real world, many of the material bases for human life are scarce. There is only so much prime agricultural land, there is only so much good pasturage, there are only so many navigable rivers, only so many good ocean ports, only so many trees, only so much gold and iron and aluminum and oil, and so on. Whether this is the doing of God or blind nature, it is the reality that we as humans find ourselves living in. It is mere wishful thinking to imagine that all these things exist in such abundance that everyone can have as much of all of them as he or she would desire.
It is one thing to acknowledge this fact, and still propose some scheme under which access to or possession of these scarce resources is more fairly distributed than it is at present. But rather than do that, Karl Marx devised a second reality in which this fact of the real world is imagined out of existence. (He actually despised policies, such as those of the moderate socialists, that simply attempted to give some people a fairer share.) In the dream world of the communist utopia, scarcity would be absent. (Marx did acknowledge scarcity to some extent, but only so far as it had been created, and existed in his time, due to the evil machinations of capitalists, and not as a basic fact about reality.) And by wishing this fact out of existence, Marx could simply ignore the need for coming to terms with it. He did not need to make any concrete proposals for how the ideal communist society would handle the distribution of goods, since in the imaginary world where nothing is scarce, there simply is no problem of distribution.
Now, of course, actual communists had to rule communist societies that existed in the actual world, not in the world of Marx’s imagination. And so they could not avoid dealing with the reality of scarcity. (It should surprise no realist that, in fact, the way they dealt with it was that the rulers, and a handful of star athletes, chess players, mathematicians, and scientists, got all of the best stuff, and everyone else had to scrape by with the leftovers.) But given that the rule of the communists depended upon belief in Marx’s second reality, the fact of scarcity could never be admitted. Instead, the continual failure of the communist utopia to actually emerge had to be blamed on capitalists, Kulaks, intellectuals, reactionaries, and so on… and thus these people were imprisoned and slaughtered by the millions. And while these horrors were obvious for anyone willing to look, many, many people in communist countries went along with the charade, for to dissent was to risk being labeled a “reactionary” oneself, and to experience, at best, social ostracism, or very often “re-education” or even death. But what is worse is that many in the West did so as well, where the only penalty they faced was being ridiculed for being on “the wrong side of history.”
Today, of course, communism has mostly faded away, except in some few, scattered corners of academia. But a new ideology is rapidly gaining acceptance all around us: the ideology of the self-created individual. If we were to try to capture the essence of this ideology in a single slogan, it might be: “you can be whoever or whatever you can imagine yourself to be.”
It matters little, in evaluating this ideology, whether one is the most mystical of theists or the most hardheaded of materialists. Whether you think it was divine intention or the blind turning of the gears of evolution that made us what we are, one thing should be clear to anyone even loosely in touch with reality: we humans did not create ourselves. Furthermore, we cannot “be whoever we imagine we can.” Whether or not one believes in God, so long as one has some grip on reality, it is obvious that none of us can be God, either because we are simply a part of material reality, and not its source, or because there already is one God, and no room for a second. We also cannot be an oak tree or an earthworm.
But even within the realm of human possibility, not every person can be anything that any human might become. A person born with dwarfism is not going to become an NBA basketball player. A person born with severe Down syndrome is not going to become a top theoretical physicist. And if they imagine they might, it is not “positive thinking” to encourage that belief, but more like playing a cruel prank on them. The realist answer to the “self-creationists’” ideological slogan might be put, “Accept who you are, and be the best version of that person possible.”
But, as with the communists, the acolytes of the ideology of the self-created individual want, not to accept reality, but to replace reality with their dreamworld. They reject the simple fact that we, as created beings (whether created by God or nature), cannot be whoever we want to be, but must deal with the hand we have been dealt by our creator as best we can. While any decent person wants those born with disabilities, such as blindness or non-functioning limbs, to have the opportunity for the most fulfilling life possible, the ideologues of the self-created individual try to deny that naturally occurring disabilities even exist: “The only disability I have is your attitude” is a slogan I have seen on posters in university hallways. It as though the only reason a blind person has trouble driving in rush-hour traffic is bad attitudes on the part of other drivers, or the difficulty a paraplegic has in climbing a mountain is due to insufficiently enlightened rocks. Thus, the ideologues of the self-created individual are like Marx in this respect also: they admit there are limits on individual self-creation, but only because “haters” create those limits.
Which brings us to Bruce Jenner. One of the hands that God or evolution has dealt us is our sex. And, in most wisdom traditions, accepting who you are is a huge step on the road to happiness. The ancient Greeks inscribed “Know thyself” on the entrance to the temple of Apollo at Delphi. The Ten Commandments advise us not to envy what others have but we don’t. Buddhism teaches that it is the desire to be other than what we are that causes suffering. Taoism tells us that the way to inner peace is to become one with the natural order of things. And much more recently, Freud recommended extensive self-examination, and not superficial transformations of one’s body parts, as the path to psychological equilibrium. But the ideology of the self-created individual stands in stark opposition to all of those traditions: rather than understanding and accepting who we are, our only real problem is that reactionary others stand in the way of our transforming ourselves into whatever we imagine we might be instead.
Now, I have no wish to outlaw sex-change operations. And when a mature adult like Jenner decides to undergo such a process, I wish him the best, although I suspect that reading Dante, or Buddha or Freud or Jung, would have done more for him than the course he has chosen. But to hold him up as a “hero,” and to suggest he is an exemplar for “troubled youth struggling with their identity” (as I recently saw argued on social media), is a triumph of ideology over any concern for the well-being of actual people.
For the human animal, the teen years are a difficult time, as new demands of adult responsibility combine with surging hormones to buffet the individual’s psyche this way and that. To suggest to individuals going through such a tempest that the route to calm weather is as simple as altering one’s genitals is a cruel joke. I suggest that the number of teens for whom their primary psychological problem is that they have a penis instead of a vagina, or vice-versa, is very close to zero. But many struggling teens—and how few teens aren’t struggling in some way?—will feel the lure of this easy answer, especially when they are told that they will be “heroes” if they act on the idea.
There is compelling evidence that sex-change operations do not improve the well being of those who have undergone them, and that the primary cause of gender confusion is psychological, not biological. As Dr. Jon Meyer, a psychiatrist involved in pioneering work in this area, put it, “To say that this type of surgery cures psychiatric disturbance is incorrect. We now have objective evidence that there is no real difference in the transsexual’s adjustment to life in terms of jobs, educational attainment, marital adjustment and social stability.” Another pioneer in the field reported: “There is too much unhappiness among people who have had the surgery … Too many end in suicide.” In fact, the suicide rate of those who have had such surgery is a shocking 20 times above that of the “non-transgendered.” But when I recently noted these facts in an online discussion, a “self-created individual” ideologue told me the cause of these suicides is… people like me! The parallel to Marxists blaming “reactionaries” for the continual failure of their schemes to achieve utopia should be obvious. As Voegelin noted in The New Science of Politics, “The gap between intended and real effect [of utopian schemes] will be imputed not to the [ideological] immorality of ignoring the structure of reality but to the immorality of some other person or society that does not behave as it should according to the dream conception of cause and effect.”
Unfortunately, as in the case of Marxism, secondary realities exist only in the ideologue’s mind, and all of us must actually live in primary reality. The victims of this particular second reality will be those young people who buy into the falsehood that they are “self-created heroes” if they try to change their natural sex, and then find, a couple of years down the road, that not only are all the real problems with which they were grappling still with them, but beyond that, they are now dealing with a radically altered body which they no longer want. As psychiatrist Dr. Paul McHugh says, “Claiming that this is civil-rights matter and encouraging surgical intervention is in reality to collaborate with and promote a mental disorder.” Like communism, reality will catch up with this ideology too, and it will fade away as all such insanities must, but, in the meantime, the cost in human happiness may be very large indeed.
Gene Callahan teaches computer science at St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn and is the author of Oakeshott on Rome and America.
This book is the second half of a two-volume work in which Fukuyama’s goal has been to set out the conditions that produce political order, so that we may increase our ability to produce it. The first volume covered the time from our distant past as bands of hunter-gatherers up to the Industrial Revolution. This volume starts where that one left off and proceeds to the present.
In many respects, the work is similar to a natural history of the human body written with the goal of determining what conditions produce health. Fukuyama refers to this optimal state of political flourishing as “Denmark,” employing the actual country as a synecdoche for any well-functioning polity. He proposes that there are three key elements in political health: a strong state, the rule of law, and democracy. The three interact in complex ways, and Fukuyama suggests that the order in which these are achieved can be crucial to how things turn out. In particular, democracy preceding a strong state and the rule of law can be problematic.
As in the first volume, Fukuyama genuflects towards biology, discussing how kin ties and reciprocal altruism are “hard-wired” into humans. But this biologism plays little role in what follows: it would have sufficed for him to note they are important.
Honest scholars who are nonbelievers, such as Fukuyama, acknowledge the historical evidence showing the positive role that religion has played in ordering social life. For instance, when he offers a speculation as to the source of the rule of law, he writes: “The rule of law, understood as rules that are binding even on the most politically powerful actors in a given society, has its origins in religion. It is only religious authority that was capable of creating rules that warriors needed to respect.”
Fukuyama’s first major section discusses the role of the state in political order. But in justifying the existence of the state, Fukuyama overstates his case: “even the most committed free-market economist would readily admit that governments have a role in providing pure public goods.” Is Fukuyama really not aware of the existence of anarcho-capitalists? Or does he just not consider any of them economists? But then he offers a strong argument as to why the state is important:
The most basic form of redistribution that a state engages in is equal application of the law. The rich and powerful always have ways of looking after themselves, and if left to their own devices will always get their way over nonelites. It is only the state, with its judicial and enforcement power, that can make elites conform to the same rules that everyone else is required to follow.
Fukuyama turns his attention to Prussia, which he argues is the first modern state in Europe, in that it first created a “Weberian bureaucracy”—referring to the work of the famed German sociologist Max Weber on “rational” bureaucracy. But Prussia, and subsequently united Germany under the Kaiser, lacked democratic accountability, and this led to too strong a bureaucracy, so that the independent German military could push the nation into the disastrous First World War.
Fukuyama goes on to discuss “low-trust” societies like Italy and Greece. Many anarcho-capitalists believe that in the absence of a state private defense firms can provide justice. But as Fukuyama notes, we have a real world example of private defense firms in action: “Diego Gambetta… presents an elegant economic theory of the Mafia’s origins: mafiosi are private entrepreneurs whose function is to provide protection of individual property rights in a society in which the state fails to perform this basic service.”
In Sicily before the creation of the Italian state, there was effectively no state at all. The Mafia filled this vacuum.
Turning his attention to the Anglosphere, Fukuyama notes that both Britain and the United States lagged behind Germany in creating efficient, professional bureaucracies. In Britain the problem was traditional patronage for the elite, which Britain’s efficient parliamentary system was able to dispense with in just two decades, between the 1850s and the 1870s. Meanwhile, the United States, having achieved democracy but with a weak state, was the first nation to develop what Fukuyama calls “clientelism,” which is essentially patronage on a mass, democratic basis. Fukuyama argues that, due to America’s less-efficient presidential system, it took two generations for the U.S. to achieve a similar degree of reform to Britain.
Fukuyama goes on to discuss what he considers an early, exemplary instance of the United States establishing a rational bureaucracy: Gifford Pinchot’s U.S. Forest Service. Skeptics of the benefits of independent bureaucracies might note here that Pinchot led the way in ensconcing “scientific” forest management as policy, an approach that Yale scholar James C. Scott has shown had negative long-term effects on the forests thus managed.
Fukuyama mentions that his mentor, Samuel Huntington, argued that a strong state along with the rule of law ought to come before democracy, but he is skeptical that such a course is feasible today, even though it may have worked in the past: the democratic ethos is now simply too established to permit that course of development. But curiously, Fukuyama seems to provide his own counter-examples, such as China and Singapore.
In his next section, entitled “Foreign Institutions,” Fukuyama looks at how democratic liberalism has fared in attempts to export it from its native turf. He examines several determinist views of history, such as Jared Diamond’s from Guns, Germs, and Steel, in the interest of seeing whether the development of a liberal state is something that can be deliberately achieved. While he admits these theories all capture some truth, he insists that none tell the full story: the decisions of individual humans always play a role in how things turn out, even if their choice set may be constrained by geographical or institutional circumstances. As evidence, Fukuyama offers a pair of cases: Nigeria/Indonesia and Argentina/Costa Rica. The first two are similarly tropical, resource rich, and were similarly poor and artificially cobbled-together nations with a legacy of colonial exploitation. Determinist theories imply that they should have similar polities today. But Indonesia, due to choices made by early leaders, has been able to forge a strong state and become more prosperous, while Nigeria has remained mired in an economy of bribes and rent-seeking.
The other pair, Argentina and Costa Rica, is employed to debunk strict geographical determinism. According to theories of this kind, tropical countries develop low-growth, plantation economies, while those in temperate zones, forced to rely more on manufacturing, wind up with more dynamic economies. Costa Rica ought to be a banana republic, and Argentina ought to be like the U.S. or Canada. But the actual situation is close to the reverse. Again, Fukuyama tells a plausible story suggesting that individual political choices played a large part in that outcome.
Examining the impact of colonialism, Fukuyama differentiates three types of European settlements: “clean-slate” colonies, such as the U.S. or Australia, where European settlers arrived in a lightly occupied land and essentially wiped out the native population, and thus were easily able to establish European-style institutions; long-term colonial projects, such as India, where Britain spent a great deal of time exporting its institutions; and colonies where Europeans invested very little in administration, which was the case for most of those in Africa. The latter were turned loose into a worldwide European-style state system with very little preparation, which could explain the relative success of Indian democracy compared to that of most African states.
Fukuyama then turns his attention to the Far East, where strong states already existed before extensive contact with Europeans. In the case of China, in fact, he argues that the empire had established a “Weberian bureaucracy” many centuries before any European state did so. The Confucian ethos that spread from China to Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, he contends, made the history of those nations after European contact very different from that of South America or Africa. In particular, it made authoritarian rulers feel a moral imperative to rule for the common good and so produced better governance.
Fukuyama makes a surprising historical mistake regarding Japan: “Having sat out World War I, [Japan] experienced a vigorous period of economic expansion…” In fact, Japan declared war on both Germany and Austria-Hungary in August 1914, fought forces from both empires in the Far East, and sent its navy all the way to the Mediterranean to provide escort for troops of the Triple Entente.
Addressing China, Fukuyama claims that the concept of the rule of law—unlike a strong state—has not gained a firm foothold there because “There was never a transcendental religion, and there was never a pretense that law had a divine origin.” Are Buddhism and Taoism not “transcendental religions”? If not, why not? Fukuyama does not explain. And did not the “mandate of heaven” that justified the emperor’s rule give law a divine origin? (Fukuyama does touch on the “mandate of heaven” in his first volume, but not in a way that convinces me he is correct here.)
He perceives an interesting continuity between ancient and modern China:
I would argue that the state that has emerged in China since the beginning of reforms in 1978 bears more resemblance to this classical Chinese state than it does to the Maoist state that preceded it … . Contemporary China has been engaged in the recovery of a long-standing historical tradition, whether or not participants in that process were aware of what they were doing.
Fukuyama next examines representative government. He notes several arguments against full democracy, in particular, those of Karl Marx, John Stuart Mill, Walter Bagehot, Gaetano Mosca, and Vilfredo Pareto. (In Fukuyama’s list of critics of democracy, Plato is a notable omission. This is indicative of Fukuyama’s general neglect of the classical and Christian traditions of political thought.) Fukuyama “answers” all these anti-democratic arguments by saying that they “do not amount to a convincing argument for systematic franchise restriction.” This hardly represents a counter-argument; it’s mere dismissal.
Fukuyama makes another historical error in the view he attributes to Marx of crises in capitalism: “capitalist use of technology would extract surpluses from the labor of the proletariat, leading to greater concentration of wealth and the progressive immiseration of workers … . Ever increasing levels of inequality would lead to a shortfall in demand, and the system would come crashing down upon itself.” Thomas Sowell, in his book Marxism, corrects this common misperception: “Crises are inherent in capitalist commodity production because producers cannot accurately predict the demand of the consumers or the supply of other producers … . Neither underconsumption nor a permanent ‘breakdown’ plays any role in this picture.”
Fukuyama goes on to consider Mosca’s and Pareto’s theory that no human society has ever existed without an elite class. Somewhat bizarrely, the failure of the Soviet Union to eliminate elitism is presented as partial evidence against this theory.
In defense of democracy, despite the many problems that he concedes it engenders, Fukuyama argues, “Democratic accountability is critical to the proper functioning of political systems because it is ultimately the basis for authority, that is, the legitimate exercise of power.” Here he seems to be adopting a contract/consent theory of legitimate government, which must fail since there was never any contract and there is no universal consent. If consent really were the basis of legitimate government, then anarchists would be correct: there is no legitimate government.
Again, Fukuyama’s neglect of the classical and Christian traditions of political thought is apparent: in those traditions, governments are justified when they are doing the job of maintaining decent social order, whoever might have consented to their efforts. Of course, consent is a good sign that they are fulfilling that role, but it is not the basis of their legitimacy.
Fukuyama finally addresses the question of what causes relatively good political conditions to decay. He cites two main factors: what he calls “repatrimonialization,” by which he means a return to kin-based and exchange-of-favor-based political relations, and ideological rigidity. Not at all sanguine about the current state of politics in America, he believes both are currently plaguing the republic: “For example, Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act in 2010 turned into something of a monstrosity during the legislative process as a result of all the concessions inside payments that had to be made to interest groups, including doctors, insurance companies, and the pharmaceutical industry. The bill itself ran to 900 pages…”
Indeed, it is likely that the good done by the ACA—if one accepts that broader health-care provision guaranteed by the state is a good—could have been achieved with a 10-page bill subsidizing insurance coverage for everyone making under some specified amount per year. That means there are 890 pages of unnecessary complications in there.
Fukuyama is also not a fan of the American Constitution. In a discussion of how the American system of checks-and-balances and federalism produces wildly inefficient legislation, Fukuyama notes that “Congress created fifty-one separate programs for worker retraining, and eighty-two projects to improve teacher quality.”
Fukuyama has an interesting perspective on why this occurs. He contends that these legislative Rube Goldberg devices Americans create arise primarily from the way our system of checks-and-balances and federalism has worked out in practice: multiple branches, agencies, and levels of government are involved with almost every political issue in the United States. Rather than working to limit government, as the Founders had intended, this multiplicity of authorities has created a byzantine government. Fukuyama believes parliamentary systems work better, but he despairs of creating one in the U.S., due to ideological rigidity.
While Fukuyama has toned down the extreme claims he made in his book The End of History, he has not abandoned the fundamental orientation on display there. History has still been on a “road” democracy. Societies are still judged by whether they have achieved “stable” democracy. Western European-style polities (“Denmark”) are still the goal for him, and everyone is, or at least should be, trying to get there. Societies that were approaching the end goal of liberal democracy, per Fukuyama, have sometimes been “hijacked” by other movements that diverted them from that predestined course.
Evidence of Fukuyama’s retreat from his earlier, extreme Hegelian position is on display in the following: “No one living in an established liberal democracy should therefore be complacent about the inevitability of its survival. There is no automatic historical mechanism that makes progress inevitable, or that prevents decay and backsliding.” But the very phrasing of this caveat shows that Fukuyama has not completely abandoned his earlier stance. History is going to a definite destination, although sometimes it “backslides”; he still holds that “there is a clear directionality in the process of political development.”
Perhaps there is such directionality, but “clear”? What was clear to Polybius was that Rome was destined to rule the world. What was clear to Charles II was that absolute monarchy was the wave of the future. What was clear to Marx and Engels was that capitalism was doomed and would soon be replaced by communism. What was clear to fascists in the early 20th century was that liberal democracy had had its day and must be supplanted by a better system. Why should we think that Fukuyama’s “clear directionality” will not seem just as much a product of his circumstances in a century or two? History may or may not have a destination, but it seems presumptuous to think that we, as beings embedded in it, can suss it out even if it does.
In the end, though, none of these criticisms should obscure the fact that Fukuyama is a deep and important political thinker, and that this book, the surface of which I have only been able to skim, is well worth reading for anyone interested in the issues it addresses.
Gene Callahan teaches economics at SUNY Purchase and is the author of Oakeshott on Rome and America.
In my neighborhood in Brooklyn, there is an interesting venue for offering your unwanted goods to others: the sidewalk. The way it works is that when you have something that you don’t want, say, some shelving, or an old coat, but which might be useful to someone else, you put it out on the sidewalk. Everyone “from the neighborhood” knows that such goods are available for the taking. (See about 2:57 into this video on this practice. The humor in the skateboard scene, at around 3:13, comes because the woman has transgressed the boundaries where the practice applies: you are not allowed to climb into someone’s yard and remove goods simply because they are visible from the sidewalk. And this is an important point: such local customs come with rules, even though they may never have been formalized.)
Imagine an immigrant couple to the neighborhood, say from Kansas, where no such practice exists. They are redoing the wood floor of the living room, and need to put the furniture somewhere else while doing so. Given what New York apartments are like, there is not much spare room inside. But the sidewalk is nice and wide! And they have seen other people’s furniture out on the sidewalk for a time. They stick a couple of pieces out there, and go about working on their floor.
But when they go to retrieve those pieces, they find that they are gone. They call the police and report them stolen. If enough people unfamiliar with this practice come into the neighborhood, and have conflicts over it, at some point, some city councilman will intervene, probably by banning the practice. What was a useful local custom began to produce disputes and legal charges, and eventually was made illegal. I actually saw an “immigrant” from Massachusetts (perhaps just an immigrant for the day) threatening to call the police over our local double-parking custom, in which it is permissible to block people in during the hour-and-a-half street cleaning period when one side of the street is off limits for parking. I had to inform him that the local police were well aware of the practice, as evidenced by the dozens of unticketed, double-parked cars all around us.
A key contribution of the libertarian economist and political theorist F.A. Hayek was to stress the importance of local knowledge in making our social life workable. His followers are (quite correctly) keen to point out the ways in which formal government regulations on a national or state scale will tend to be oblivious to such knowledge, and to be destructive of its functioning. For example, James C. Scott has noted how Mao, in his efforts to increase Chinese agricultural productivity, imposed farming methods on Chinese farmers that were often devastating to delicate farming eco-systems that embodied centuries of built-up local knowledge.
Thus, it is somewhat surprising that libertarian advocates of open borders have paid so little attention to the effects of mass immigration on the local knowledge base. (As noted above, this can apply to immigration from other regions of one country as well as for foreign immigration. But while an immigrant to Brooklyn from Kansas is not likely to know about our idiosyncratic sidewalk offering or parking customs, clearly he or she will share more common cultural knowledge with Brooklynites than will an immigrant from Moldova.)
Without a myriad of informal “ways we do things around here” informing our day-to-day activities, social life would become overburdened with countless regulations concerning our quotidian interactions. For instance, we don’t today need a law telling us which meals must come with silverware, and which need not do so. If we order fried chicken and fries at Popeyes, it is fine if they don’t also give us silverware, but if we order borscht and beef tongue at the Russian Tea Room, we quite rightly expect a knife, fork and spoon to come with our meal, and at no extra charge.
There are so many situations in which a new immigrant to a nation will lack the local knowledge necessary to smoothly coordinate his or her actions with locals possessing such knowledge that it is foolish to think this reality is of no significance in considering immigration law. What hour is too late to play loud music? At what time is it OK to start your power mower in the morning? How many friends can you have over before it is expected that you inform a neighbor that you are having a party? When do you hold a door open for someone a bit behind you but soon to pass through it? How long can you relax in a restaurant after your meal? How did you signal to someone that he should move over on the highway so you can pass? How long is it OK to look at a magazine at a newsstand without buying it? Can you sample the food in a olive bar? What signs indicate that a person is welcoming your flirtation, and what signs say “bugger off”? How long is holding someone’s gaze expected, and at what point does continuing to hold it become aggressive? I could go on, but you get the point. Lest anyone think such matters are trivial, they should merely peruse the history of conflict between Korean shop owners and African-American locals in American cities.
A key lesson of economics is that all choices involve trade-offs: there is no free lunch. So it is curious that many libertarian economists, so eager to point this fact out in other situations, often seem to treat immigration as if it were immune to this principle, and argue as if unlimited immigration is simply an unalloyed bundle of benefits with no associated costs.
I am not at all “anti-immigrant.” A healthy level of immigration is a positive good for a community or a nation: it keeps it open to new ideas and new ways of doing things, and helps prevent ossification. But similarly, while a healthy level of exercise is a very good thing, exercising 100 hours a week is a terrible idea. Recognizing the erosion of local knowledge in the face of large-scale immigration does not imply that immigration is uniformly undesirable: it must be weighed against the positive goods that immigration provides to a community. But it cannot be so weighed if its existence is not even acknowledged.
Gene Callahan teaches economics at SUNY Purchase and is the author of Oakeshott on Rome and America.
That the war on drugs, in its current form, is a failure is obvious to all but the most blinkered observers. But the proper response to this failure is a matter of contention. Pope Francis, for instance, recently suggested we address the underlying causes of drug abuse (without ending prohibition). Others recommend treatment-based approaches. The more libertarian among us are likely to back complete legalization of all drugs.
I would like to recommend a policy that does not reject any of the above as possibly the ultimate answer to this failure, but takes a measured, experimental step that, while running little risk of making matters significantly worse, holds out, I think, great hope for improving them.
With marijuana, the question is apparently being decided in favor of gradual, piecemeal legalization. But heroin and cocaine legalization has far less support, and with good reason: these drugs are far more addictive than pot. (I am not saying that therefore they should not be legalized, merely that is understandable that people might be more sanguine about marijuana legalization than about legalizing harder drugs.) I wish to suggest a halfway sort of legalization that I feel offers several potential upsides: let us try legalizing the milder substances from which cocaine and heroin are derived, namely, coca leaves and opium.
Perhaps if we could simply make cocaine and heroin disappear by wishing it were so, it would be the best of all possible solutions. But basing policy on fantasy is generally a poor choice. (Please see the second Iraq war for evidence.) And the current policy of strict prohibition has fueled organized crime and led to the increasing militarization of our police forces. My proposal offers the following advantages over the current situation:
- It allows us to test the waters of just how socially damaging full cocaine or heroin legalization might be, without simply plunging in head first. If simply legalizing coca leaves and opium produces droves of drugged-out zombies (which I don’t think it would), we could rule out full cocaine and heroin legalization, and even consider repealing this halfway legalization. If the effects are that bad, we can be sure that they would have been worse if we had legalized the harder forms of these drugs.
- A strong libertarian argument for full legalization (I say “strong,” and not “decisive,” because I think there are significant counter-arguments here), is that many people are able to use these drugs in moderation without destroying their lives. (See the work of Jacob Sullum if you doubt this is true.) “Why,” the libertarian asks, “should these people be denied legal access to them simply because others will abuse them? (And note: while such usage is often referred to as “recreational,” it might often more accurately be described as”medicinal”: such moderate users may suffer from problems in focusing, and find that a mild dose of cocaine alleviates this difficulty, or be in chronic pain, and find that a mild dose of heroin offers them the best relief.) Well, these moderate, responsible users ought to find a milder, safer, and legal form of the drug they use to be a very welcome thing indeed. They could avoid the risk of arrest, of unregulated and adulterated street products that may contain dangerous additives, of job loss, and would enjoy a much greater ability to control their dosage.
- The considerations in point number two indicate what I think would be the greatest potential upside of this idea: its impact upon the economics of the trade in hard drugs. The shift in consumption predicted above would greatly lessen the demand for the more dangerous forms of these drugs. Read More…
Most people intuit that coming from the “right sort” of family is a big advantage in life, while being from the “wrong side of the tracks” is a serious disability. And they suspect that these advantages and disadvantages persist, as demonstrated by the continuing prominence of, say, people whose ancestors “came over on the Mayflower” among the upper crust in America.
The difficulty with this intuitive understanding is that social-science research does not seem to back it up. Psychologists, sociologists, and economists have found rates of social mobility that ought to wipe out all familial advantage or disadvantage within three to five generations. Furthermore, the rates of social mobility found in most of these studies differed greatly from one country to another, with, for instance, Sweden scoring much higher than the United States in this regard.
So is this belief in the persistence of familial advantage just a popular delusion? That is the question that U.C. Davis economist Gregory Clark takes up in his new book, and the answer he found surprised even him. He set out thinking the social-science consensus was correct, intending only to extend those findings further into the past. But the evidence changed his mind: social scientists have been measuring mobility the wrong way, and in fact the popular intuition is on target.
The key to understanding Clark’s thesis is his division of the factors that make for success in worldly affairs into an inherited component and a random component. (“Inherited” here need not mean “genetic”: one could inherit, for instance, one’s family’s reputation.) Most previous studies have focused on movements in social class from one generation to the next. But as Clark explains using his two-factor model, such a limited time frame means that the random component of social achievement is going to have an undue influence. This is not an esoteric notion: think, for instance, of a member of a high-achievement family who suffers a terrible car accident as a youth, leaving him with severe brain damage. It is quite likely that whether measured by income, profession, or educational level, that member will do significantly worse than the family average.
But this accident will not change the family’s basic “social competency” (Clark’s term). If the injured son has children, they will not inherit his brain damage. Their level of achievement will tend to return toward the family baseline. So, Clark suggests, if we really want to measure social mobility, we should look at the social status of families over many generations.
The way he and his team of researchers did so is ingenious: they found relatively rare surnames primarily associated with high social standing, such as the names taken by the nobility in Sweden, or low social standing, such as names characteristic of the Travellers in England, and tracked their appearance in historical records showing elite status, such as admissions to top universities—for Oxford and Cambridge, we have data dating back 800 years—large estates bequeathed in probate, or presence in high-status professions such as law and medicine.
The results confirm that the popular intuition has been correct all along:
The intergenerational correlation in all the societies for which we construct surname estimates—medieval England, modern England, the United States, India, Japan, Korea, China, Taiwan, Chile, and even egalitarian Sweden—is … much higher than conventionally estimated. Social status is inherited as strongly as any biological trait, such as height.
What’s more, it matters little what social policies are put in place: Clark and his team find that social mobility remains nearly constant over time despite the arrival of free public education, the reduction of nepotism in government, modern economic growth, the expansion of the franchise, and redistributive taxation.
Clark introduces us to the reality of this persistence of status with a few notable examples. For instance, the family of famed diarist Samuel Pepys has had high social status from 1500 until today, while that of Sir Timothy Berners-Lee, creator of the World Wide Web, apparently has been upper crust since the Domesday Book of 1086. And in noting the many prominent members of the Darwin family, he remarks, “It is also interesting that Darwin’s fourth-generation descendants include Adrian Maynard Keynes and William Huxley Darwin.” The elite tend to marry the elite.
But if such isolated examples were the crux of Clark’s case, it would be a rather flimsy one: even if the standard social science take on mobility were correct, we would expect to find notable exceptions to the general rule. His main backing for his thesis is a number of studies conducted across many countries and many centuries. Nevertheless the anecdotes are an important aspect of this work: they are a component of how Clark continually turns what could have been an extremely dry executive summary of a number of demographic surveys into a consistently engaging book.
While I am no expert on the literature concerning social mobility, it seems to me that Clark has backed his thesis with very significant and relevant data. But I would want to see responses from those defending the more traditional social-science view on social mobility before unconditionally awarding the victory to Clark.
One way in which Clark gauges the social status of an ethnic group is to see how the proportion of doctors in the group compares to the proportion in the population as a whole. This measure is not flawless: in the case of Filipinos, I think it must overstate their status, as they seem to be a people that just love the medical professions. (Having married a Filipina, I have found that roughly 80 percent of my in-laws are doctors or nurses.) But it is a good rough gauge nonetheless. Clark uses this gauge to evaluate the elite status of various ethnic groups by looking at the surnames of registered physicians in America. Which ethnicities top the charts of U.S. doctors?
Here they are, starting with a group that produces physicians at 13 times the national average: 1) Coptic Egyptians, 2) Indian Hindus (about 12 times the average), 3) Indian Christians, 4) Iranian Muslims, 5) Lebanese Christians, 6) Ashkenazi Jews, 7) Sephardic Jews, 8) Koreans, 9) Chinese, 10) Filipinos, 11) black Africans (we’ve reached about four times the average here), 12) Greeks, 13) Armenians, 14) Japanese, 15) Vietnamese, 16) black Haitians.
So, what do we find among the top 16 doctor-producing groups in the United States? No European Protestant group. This calls into question the notion of “white privilege”: being a physician is a high-income, high-status profession. If white privilege is a significant social force, why doesn’t a single European-Protestant ethnicity appear among this top 16? Why do our populations of black Africans and black Haitians produce doctors at significantly higher rates than Dutch-Americans, Swedish-Americans, or Finnish-Americans, all groups that make up a low enough percentage of our population that they cannot be said to constitute the average merely by their numerical preponderance? Clark does not try to deny that many white Americans harbor prejudice against non-whites. But this prejudice, however real, apparently is not preventing many non-white ethnic groups from achieving high social status.
And if white privilege is really a major force in the United States, what are we to make of the persistently low social status of French Canadian immigrants, a group of people that is, after all, pretty darned white, and many of whom have been in the States for a couple of centuries? (I had no idea this low social status was even the case before reading Clark’s book. Did you?) Clark explains this fact as being due to a double-selection for low social achievement: the initial population of French Canada came primarily from the lower-status population of France, and then it was chiefly lower-status Québecois who emigrated to America. Americans of French Canadian descent are in fact reverting to the mean and becoming more like the rest of our population; but starting from a very low initial position, they are doing so slowly, just as Clark’s model predicts.
Clark discusses several apparent exceptions to his “law of social mobility.” He finds they all fall into one of two categories. A group with exceptionally lengthy high or low social status may persist in that status because members do not intermarry with other groups, such as the Brahmins in India. Or the group in question may experience selective in- and out-migration, such as the Travellers in England—whom Clark argues are not ethnically distinct from the general population—so that lower-status people who want a migrant lifestyle joined the Travellers, while those wishing to move up in status left the group.
A flaw in this book is Clark’s tendency to treat the abstract model he has developed to capture his findings as if it were an actual causal agent operating in the real world. Consider the following passage:
If a group deviates in the current generation from the mean social status, set at zero, then on average will have deviated by a smaller amount, determined by b, in the previous generation. A group of families now of high social status have arrived at the status over many generations by a series of upward steps from the mean. And the length and speed of that ascent, paradoxically, are determined by the rate of persistence, b.
This is a perfect example of what Alfred North Whitehead referred to as “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.” In reality, what we have are particular, concrete individuals, members of families, doing this and that in the world and succeeding or failing to some degree or another. From a large number of such individuals, Clark has devised a model of changes in social status. Within that model, there is a parameter, which he calls b, that is determined by the average speed of ascent or descent in social status among family members.
It is these actual, concrete activities that make b what it is. But Clark gets this exactly backwards: for him, this abstract entity, b, is somehow controlling the actions of real-world individuals. It is like thinking that a baseball player’s batting average determines how often he will get hits, as if somehow a number on the TV screen can influence his swings, rather than how often he gets hits determining his batting average.
Enough with the details: what is the general upshot of Clark’s findings? For one thing, even if we believe that social mobility ought to be as high as possible, his data do not support the idea that we ought to undertake major social engineering projects with the goal of increasing it. If public education, a universal adult franchise, redistributive taxation, or even the radical egalitarianism of Mao’s China did not alter social mobility in any significant way, just what would we have to do to dramatically change it?
We might have to adopt the sort of dystopian measures that Kurt Vonnegut contemplated in his short story “Harrison Bergeron,” where people who are too intelligent are subjected to deafening noises that continually interrupt their thoughts. If that sort of thing is the only fix available, then perhaps we ought to accept social mobility for what it is and welcome the contributions to social life made by the more adept without seeking to cripple them with equal-outcome producing handicaps.
Clark notes that his findings do not indicate that we will have perpetual upper and lower classes: although social mobility for families is slower than others had estimated, it is real, and it means that over the centuries no particular clan will remain on top or at the bottom. In the meantime, Clark suggests a broad adoption of a Scandinavian-type social-welfare model: after all, if social status is largely a matter of being born into the right or wrong family, why shouldn’t public policy act to balance out such an effect of mere luck? Whether Clark is correct in drawing such a conclusion from his data, I leave it to my reader to decide. But if such issues concern you, you should read this important book.
Gene Callahan teaches economics at SUNY Purchase and is the author of Oakeshott on Rome and America.
The Western Roman Empire officially came to an end in AD 476, with the deposition of Romulus Augustus. Many people learn that its fall came about due to invading barbarians. There is an element of truth in this, but it would be closer to reality to say that these were immigrating barbarians. For most of these groups were not setting out to conquer Roman territory; what they wanted was to become a part of the empire and to reap the advantages of its law and order and economic prosperity.
If Rome had adopted open borders, would this have fixed the problem, perhaps by making the immigration process more peaceful and less of an invasion? No—more likely the Western Empire simply would’ve been overwhelmed earlier; while the Romans were great assimilators—Spain was so Romanized that by the second century AD no legions needed to be stationed there—it took several generations for the process to work. If too many immigrants came in too fast, Roman institutions would be swamped before assimilation took place.
The Romans allowed numerous barbarian groups to come into the empire and settle. But they controlled immigration as long as they could, letting in groups of 10,000 or 20,000 or 30,000 at a time, and then directing where they could settle. Only when the Romans lost control of their borders did the influx became overwhelming and the Western Empire fall.
Similar examples are not hard to find. The native inhabitants of North America also suffered from an immigration problem, one that almost led to their extinction. The culture of Celtic England largely disappeared in the face of Germanic immigration. Today, the massive numbers of Han Chinese moving to Tibet and Xinjiang threaten to eliminate the Tibetan and Uyghur cultures. The point of these examples is not that any of them is exactly like the immigration situation in United States: there are obvious differences.
But one popular position among some on the American right today is advocacy of “open borders,” an idea whose supporters include neoconservative globalists, corporate Republicans, and many libertarians. My argument, contra those advocates of open borders, is that it certainly is possible to have too many immigrants, if one cares about the survival of one’s culture. But it is also possible to have too few. And that is why I am an immigration trimmer.
Imagine someone posing a question to a group of medical professionals: should all of your patients eat more or less food? Isn’t the question itself a bit ridiculous? A sensible doctor will say, “Neither, it depends upon the circumstances. Someone can eat too little or too much. I would need to examine the particular case of each patient.” But on the topic of immigration, many pundits seem unable to adopt this commonsensical view and instead try to treat immigration as an unalloyed good or a disease to be avoided if at all possible.
Lord Halifax sought peaceful compromise between the pro- and anti-Stuart forces threatening England with a new civil war in the late 1600s, a position he set out in a famous pamphlet, “The Character of a Trimmer.” “Trimmer” is sometimes used as a term of abuse by those prone to go to extremes themselves: the trimmer is without principles, he dodges and weaves between the stances of extremists. But I suggest that it should be thought of as a compliment. As a student of Aristotle—hardly a man without principles—I generally suspect that extreme views are expressions of vice and that the path of virtue will involve holding to a course between their hazards.
The Romans were adept trimmers. The historian Polybius praised their constitution as properly blending the virtues of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. And their pragmatism was on display in their dealings with non-Roman peoples. They knew they could not erect a huge fence at the border of their empire to keep out all who sought to enjoy its benefits, but they could, and for a long time did, control their influx so as to minimize its disruptive effects.
If we are to seek such a virtuous mean in our immigration policy, what ought we to consider? We can usefully partition the issue into three major divisions: we should look at the economic effects of immigration, the cultural effects, and the morality of allowing or forbidding immigrants into a polity.
The primary reason that people seek to move to the United States—or Britain, or Canada, or any prosperous nation—is the opportunity to achieve a better standard of living. Such a universal human aspiration surely should not be condemned. Even illegal immigrants are risking legal sanctions for an admirable motive. Why would anyone object to people trying to better their material wellbeing?
A common concern voiced by immigration foes is that immigrants will take jobs away from Americans. Certainly immigration increases the supply of workers, which might tend to lower the employment opportunities and wages of natives. But just as surely, immigration also increases the demand for workers: immigrants need houses and roads and food and schools, and someone has to supply them. So the balance here could go either way.
What’s more, there is little hard evidence that the troubles of lower- and middle-class America in recent years have been caused to any great extent by immigration. In his book Average Is Over, economist Tyler Cowen notes:
Harvard professor George Borjas, a leading critic of our current immigration policies, has presented evidence that immigrants have lowered the wages of high school dropouts, in the long run, by 4.8 percent. But the wages of many other Americans have risen … And that’s what the major immigration critic finds. Other estimates of the effects of immigration are considerably more positive in terms of the effect on American wages.
But these economic facts are true in a world with controlled immigration. Would they still hold in a world of open borders?
To understand what the result of a flood of newcomers would be, we have to ask why it is that an immigrant to the United States can better his condition by moving here from Laos or Nigeria or Nicaragua. Generally, economists agree that it’s because each worker here is backed by a much greater amount of human, social, and physical capital than would be the case in his native country. (The worker’s own human capital is identical in either situation, but that of the people he works with may be higher.) So long as not too many people are immigrating at once, this will continue to hold true.
But imagine an archipelago of 100 islands, each of which, due to the limits of their natural resources, can barely support 100 hunter-gatherers. If all of the islands but one have 100 people, and that island only has 10, then some of those on the crowded islands can benefit by moving to the emptier one. But if 90 of them do so, then the target island will simply be reduced to the same subsistence living as all of the others.
This is very much the situation of a rich country in a poorer world, except that the rich country has, chiefly, not more abundant natural capital but more abundant human, social, and physical capital. Should the United States completely open its borders, the equilibrium position we would expect is that immigration would continue until the wage differential between American workers and developing world workers disappeared.
The other thing to consider is how immigrants may change the economic policies of their new country. Franklin Roosevelt, hardly a hero to libertarian advocates of open borders, was elected in a large part because of the votes of immigrants or their sons and daughters. If, absent restrictions, many more left-leaning immigrants had entered the country before the Great Depression, who knows how far left our politics might have shifted?
But the most important effects of mass immigration are cultural, and not economic. The proponents of open-borders often note the large number of Irish, Italian, and Jewish immigrants to the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th century have all assimilated. Ironically enough, this “pro-immigrant” view makes the immigrants passive recipients of an unchanging native culture. But not only do immigrants assimilate to the culture, the culture also assimilates to the immigrants, and the greater their number the more it does so. Given that the immigrants are not arriving from utopia or heaven—and why would anyone possibly emigrate from those places?—the changes they bring to a culture will inevitably be a mixed bag.
My own ancestors contributed to America some lively folk music, a large number of good pubs, and a huge increase in the quantity of amusing after-dinner speakers. But on the downside they also brought us Tammany Hall, increased gang violence, and perhaps worst of all, Irish cooking.
The proponents of open borders typically ignore this cultural question altogether. But a culture is created by people living together for extended periods of time, and it can only be learned after many years of immersion. (If you have a teenage child, you will viscerally understand this point.) Immigrants can assimilate to a new culture, but they cannot do so instantly. Furthermore, as their numbers increase, it becomes less likely that they will assimilate and more likely that they will swamp the native culture with their own.
European emigration to the New World is an instructive case in point: if Native Americans had been able to limit the flow of European immigrants, they might have been able to preserve their land and cultures. But, lacking the idea of territorial sovereignty, they could only deal with these immigrants through unconditional welcome or violence. When violence failed, their culture was overwhelmed, and it has largely disappeared. If we value our own culture, we might not want this to happen to it.
Similarly, highly liberal cultures such as those of the Netherlands and Norway are today dealing with the emergence of immigrant-filled, high-crime slums; nationalist parties; and anti-immigrant violence, all of which might have been avoided through better control of immigration in the first place.
We should also consider the effect of immigration on the cultures that the immigrants are coming from. What we should ultimately want for Laos, Nigeria, or Nicaragua is not that their brightest and most energetic people continually leave and become Americans but that those countries become prosperous themselves. If we really value cultural diversity, there is no substitute for these diverse cultures flourishing in their native soil.
The last of the issues on immigration is moral: given the modern consensus that no person counts for more than another one in ethical reasoning, can restrictions on immigration—which seem to privilege the existing inhabitants of a polity at the expense of those currently outside it—possibly be justified?
I quite agree that we should consider each human being to be ultimately as important as any other. But that does not mean that we, as agents situated in a particular place and time, cannot justifiably give more weight to how our acts will affect those nearer and dearer to us than those more distant. I hope that every child in the world gets a good education, but I am first and foremost responsible for seeing that my own children get one.
Aristotle disputed Plato’s communist view of how the guardians in his model republic ought to live by noting the inherent tendency for each of us to care for our own offspring. Friedrich Hayek can be seen as extending Aristotle’s insight with his stress on how each actor is best situated to evaluate his own “particular circumstances of time and place.” This applies just as much to our attempts to help others as to our efforts to best utilize factors of production: I am much more likely to be successful in my effort to help my next-door neighbor than I am likely to be in trying to help a homeless person in Latvia, because I can personally evaluate my neighbor’s circumstances, while I have little idea what are the real problems plaguing the Latvian indigent.
Open borders advocates often try to paint any regulation of immigration as deeply immoral. For instance, George Mason University economics professor Bryan Caplan, taking an absolutist position on immigration, writes: “Third World exile is not a morally permissible response.”
Let us set aside the fact that referring to people who are simply staying put where they are as being “exiled” is rather bizarre. What Caplan has done, in common with all ideologues, is to take a one-sided and partial truth and treat it as if it is an absolute and unconditional truth. Of course it is a good thing to help people out of Third World poverty. But again, an analogy is apropos. If, after a ship capsizes, we find ourselves on a lifeboat, surrounded by victims flailing in the water, we should save as many of them as we can. But how many is that? Only so many as will not capsize our own boat, a result that would help no one.
Poverty is not, generally speaking, the fault of those who are wealthy. (There are exceptions to this generality, such as cases where one people’s land was simply seized by another people.) While the rich have an obligation to help the poor, that obligation does not extend to the degree that they must become poor themselves.
If the above “on the one hand, but on the other hand” analysis is at all persuasive, naturally the question arises: “OK, the issue is complicated: so what should our immigration policy look like, once we acknowledge that fact?”
The first thing a good trimmer should say in response is to admit that we do not know exactly where the golden mean lies between too many immigrants and too few. But at least if we admit that both possibilities exist, we can begin to grope towards pragmatic policies that acknowledge the real truths behind the contentions of the extremists in the pro- and anti-immigration camps and attempt to guide policy with each of these partial truths in mind.
The immigration trimmer is thus likely to reject the most extreme proposals of the anti-immigration camp: giant border fences and frequent requests by law enforcement officials to “show me your papers” are threats to the freedom of every American. Here we see a practical complement to our moral case for allowing as much immigration as we can bear: not only is it right to help the less well-off when we can do so with little harm to ourselves, but it turns out to be very costly, in terms of both physical resources and lost civil liberties, to reduce immigration. Therefore, we should not try to do so until the number of immigrants becomes a serious problem.
On the other hand, the trimmer realizes that uncontrolled immigration would transform America beyond recognition and in directions that will likely horrify most open borders advocates. Short of establishing an American police state, what practical measures can be taken to regulate the flow of immigrants to our country?
I have spent years thinking about this problem without arriving at any sound-bite solution. I console myself with the thought that when someone does propose a slogan as a solution to a complex problem, he has almost surely oversimplified it. But there are proposals out there worthy of consideration.
For instance, Ron Unz’s recommendation to raise the minimum wage as a means of controlling immigration should be entertained. The sale of visas is another approach with potential, one that has been explored in the British Parliament. A lowering of barriers to the import of developing world products into wealthy countries seems an obvious step: United States agricultural subsidies and tariffs, for instance, depress the earnings of many people in poorer countries and increase the incentive for them to try to come here, to the benefit of a small number of planters in America.
However we choose to cope with the immigration issue, if our nation is to survive as an effective unit of social organization, it must have the ability to control its borders. We should do so wisely, with charity towards those worse off than us and in a way that constrains the liberty of those already inside our borders as little as possible. My own life has been enhanced beyond measure by the influence of immigrants: my wife is an immigrant from the Philippines; I came to understand music due to my mentor from Ghana; and I spent many years playing in reggae bands with immigrants from Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados, Haiti, and Antigua. I want the continued influx of their ilk to keep enriching my country. But I also want the culture in which I was raised to survive that influx. So call me a “trimmer”: I embrace the term proudly.
Gene Callahan teaches economics at SUNY Purchase and is the author of Oakeshott on Rome and America.
Bernard Bailyn is one of the giants of early American historical scholarship. In recent years he has been engaged in a project “to give an account of the peopling of British North America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.” Barbarous Years is the most recently released product of that effort. As we have come to expect from Bailyn, it is a magisterial work, which, for any reader interested in this period, more than repays the serious attention it requires. (The book is over 500 pages and dense in detail.)
Barbarous Years covers the period from the first permanent English settlements on the continent through King Phillip’s War. Besides discussing the English in the Chesapeake area and New England, this work also considers the Swedish and Dutch settlements along the Delaware and Hudson rivers. (South Carolina, founded in 1670, is left out.) Throughout this period the European toehold on the edge of the North American continent was precarious, and it was the sense of fragility, as well as the mutual incomprehension between the Europeans and Indians, that, Bailyn contends, made these years “barbarous.” Everything was uncertain in the new world being created by this clash of cultures. The constant threat felt to the very existence not just of oneself but of one’s whole community led to desperately brutal acts on the part of natives and newcomers alike.
Bailyn sets the background for his main narrative with a chapter describing the character of the native world before the arrival of the Europeans. Warfare in the world of the eastern forest Indians was frequent but often engaged in more like a sport than a life-and-death struggle. Although the Indians practiced agriculture, “cultivation of the fields did not bind one to the land” since farming was slash-and-burn rather than involving careful management of fixed plots. Thus, land ownership was not a relevant concept for the Indians, a fact that would lead to innumerable conflicts with the Europeans, as each side failed to comprehend the other’s ways of land use.
Especially fascinating is Bailyn’s description of the importance of dreams for the Indians. Rightly interpreted, dreams were guides to the best course of action: “A dream might oblige one to find sexual gratification with two married women; to sacrifice ten dogs; to burn down one’s cabin; even to cut off one’s own finger with a seashell.” But most importantly, he describes how the Indian’s world “was multitudinous, densely populated by active, sentient, and sensitive spirits, spirits with consciences, memories, and purposes, that surrounded them, instructed them.” These spirits demanded that things be maintained in a certain balance, a balance the arrival of Europeans would often disrupt, which the spirits might require the natives to redress.
Bailyn begins his story of European migration with the Chesapeake area, and there with Jamestown. The early years of that colony were so grim that he names the chapter describing them “Death on a Coastal Fringe.” There was great confusion of purpose: the colony’s sponsors wanted colonists to find the fabled Northwest Passage, or gold, or the lost colony of Roanoke, or establish English sovereignty over the whole area, while a few of the practically minded settlers actually sought to build viable settlements and establish relations with the natives. Working at cross-purposes, faced with a novel and hostile climate ridden with strange diseases, the early settlers’ death rate was appalling. By 1611, over 1,500 people had immigrated to the colony, but the population stood at only 450.
Conflict with the natives was part of this grim picture. If you want to disabuse yourself of any notion that colonial American history consists entirely of peaceful Indians being exterminated by ruthless colonists, then you need only read Bailyn’s account of the Virginia massacre of 1622. Acting on Chief Opechancanough’s plan, the Indians wandered unarmed into English settlements and offered trades or even sat down to breakfast with their English hosts. (For the Indians to share meals with the English, or even sleep over at their houses, was apparently very common before the massacre.) At a certain moment, the Indians grabbed whatever weapon was at hand—“axes, hammers, shovels, tools, and knives”—and slaughtered their hosts, killing over 300 English men, women, and children. They mutilated the corpses, burned down farms, and killed or dispersed the farm animals. The attackers apparently singled out as targets the settlers who had been friendliest towards them, “as if the acculturation they had sought, with its assumption of divine sanction, was a special danger that had to be utterly obliterated.”
The English, of course, were not blameless, and they had been very careless about encroaching upon Indian lands with their plantations. But one can see why their view of the Indians was a little less accommodative after this event. In any case, they would conduct plenty of massacres of their own in the years to come, some of them equally brutal.
It took decades for the population in the Chesapeake to begin replacing itself, but by the close of the period covered here, it had reached almost 40,000, and the English hold on the area was secure. In the intervening decades, the English settlers had found in tobacco a way to make their outpost self-sustaining and increasingly prosperous, and thus laid the foundations for the plantation-and-slave culture of the Virginia of Washington, Madison, and Jefferson. Meanwhile, in 1634, a rival English colony, Catholic-tolerant Maryland, was formed on the northern shores of the Chesapeake, an episode to which Bailyn devotes a chapter. One point that becomes clear in his analysis of the relationships between these various colonies is that it is far too simple to see the military conflict of this period as simply between Europeans and Indians, as different European groups and different Indian groups often aligned with each other to fight mutual enemies.
Bailyn next takes up the story of New Netherlands and the nearby, but largely forgotten, New Sweden. New Netherlands was a tiny outpost of the worldwide Dutch trading empire of the 1600s and was never densely settled. The prosperous Dutch were themselves usually more interested in international trade than in farming in the wilderness, so they recruited settlers from across Europe: the colony of 6,000 (at the date of English conquest in 1664) contained Germans, French, Danes, Swedes, Norwegians, Poles, and blacks.
As this potpourri spread out along the Hudson, we get another taste of the misunderstandings that generated so much racial conflict in this period:
Europeans continued to expand their settlements into Indian lands and to fence in their own fields while allowing their animals to forage in the Indians’ farmlands. The Indians continued to kill the roaming livestock as just retribution for damages done and to seek vengeance for sleights and injuries, some of which the Europeans were not aware of having inflicted.
Southwest of New Netherlands, along the Delaware, New Sweden had barely gotten going when it was conquered by the Dutch, and it might hardly be worth mention but for its one, somewhat surprising, impact on the future of America: the Finns. The Finnish settlements in New Sweden—Finland was part of Sweden at the time—although small in number, contributed an enduring image of colonial America. The Finns, from the frontier of Europe, lived in rough log cabins in New Sweden, and soon after settling there they could be found dressed in animal skins instead of European clothing and shod in deerskin moccasins. Bailyn claims the Finns had “a greater affinity to the culture of the native Americans then did any other Europeans in North America,” and it was the Finns who were initially responsible for what we think of as the American frontier style of life.
New Netherlands, the conqueror of New Sweden, became the conquered in turn, falling to the British as noted above. The result was a strange, multi-ethnic, multilingual, commercially driven society perched between the more homogeneously English New England and Chesapeake areas. New York seems to have never lost the imprint of its founding.
In contrast to these other colonies, New England was founded on more explicitly religious grounds. Yet from the beginning, the Pilgrim colony at Plymouth and the later Puritan colony of Massachusetts Bay were divided over matters of faith. Firstly, the “true believers” had had to allow a fair number of religiously indifferent “tag-alongs” to join them in their “shining city on the hill” so that the colonies would have sufficient servants and tradesmen. Bringing such people into line with the founders’ desire for strict religious discipline would be a continual challenge. But perhaps even more divisive were relations among the believers. Roger Williams was a brilliant Puritan preacher, but he was eventually driven to form his own colony in Rhode Island due to his disagreements with the Puritan establishment in Massachusetts. The triumph of the Puritan cause in the English Civil War caused further consternation: what had been the point of the colonists removing themselves thousands of miles from their homeland only to see those who had been unwilling to take such a risk triumph in the mother country?
The case of the brilliant individualist Anne Hutchinson highlights the tensions inherent in the Protestant Reformation and by extension Puritan Massachusetts. How could a movement that upheld the primacy of the individual conscience over the hierarchy of the Catholic Church sustain any sort of hierarchical structure at all? On the other hand, what in the world would Protestantism mean if every individual had his or her own version of it? When faced with Hutchinson’s claims that she was the recipient of new revelations, the church denied that post-scriptural revelation was possible and declared that claiming such was “sinful”—itself a doctrine found nowhere in Scripture.
Another area of contention in early New England was the nature of landholding. Libertarians often tout property rights as a means of avoiding conflict. Of course, when property rights are agreed upon, there won’t be disputes—but that really says nothing more than that where there is agreement, there is no conflict. Yet questions of property rights are often the very source of disputes. Reading Bailyn’s account of the English settlement of Massachusetts drives that point home with great force. Conflict over the best assignment of property rights sometimes split apart entire communities; in particular, there was a grave conflict between those settlers who came from open-field, common-landholding communities in England and those who came from places where individual freeholding was more common. Both forms survived for a long time in New England: in fact, the New Haven Green today remains a vestige of the communal form of landholding.
Throughout Barbarous Years, Bailyn conveys a sense of the early years of European settlement in North America as a tragedy of mutual miscomprehensions. While cultural differences were great and important, another factor at play, highlighted by Bailyn, was how empty North America seemed to the English colonists versus how full it was for the native Indian inhabitants of the eastern forests. My rough estimate, from the figures that Bailyn provides, is that England in this period was populated at about 100 times the density of eastern North America. In 1600, London had a population roughly equal to all of the eastern woodlands. To English eyes, therefore, the Indians were barely using the land, and there was plenty of room for Englishmen to expand and establish plantations and towns. But the way of life that these eastern forest Indians had established in fact required 100 times the land per person that the English way of life did.
The above could be read in two different ways: the Indians were ecologically wise stewards of the land who respected its carrying capacity, or the English had much more efficient economic arrangements and could make use of land far more effectively than the Indians could.
Both views have some truth in them. There were so many English heading to North America precisely because they had exceeded the carrying capacity of their own island, given the technology of the time. But it is also true that, had the Indians adopted certain practices well known in Europe, such as techniques to replenish depleted farmland, they would have been able to expand their own population well beyond what it was in 1600 without severely damaging their environment.
What would have happened had each group been able to appreciate the viewpoint of the other, I know not. But it was not to be, and what actually happened, as Bailyn makes clear, was a tragedy. In any case, I have only been able to skim lightly over the wealth of fascinating material in this excellent work: if you have any interest in this period, do pick it up.
Gene Callahan teaches economics at SUNY Purchase and is the author of Oakeshott on Rome and America.
The progressives of today see themselves as the inheritors of the tradition of Western liberalism. They are the advocates of human freedom, liberating the individual from the shackles of the past and from superstition and prejudice. But too often they forget the foundations of the liberal tradition to which they pay homage. I suggest that they might with benefit turn to John Stuart Mill, to learn something of what “the liberty of thought and discussion” really means.
These thoughts are prompted by the furor generated by pasta king Guido Barilla’s interview in which he asserted that his company, now the largest supplier of pasta in both the United States and Italy, would continue to use only “traditional” families in its advertising and would “never” portray a “gay” family in its ads. His remarks led to worldwide efforts to boycott his company’s products to voice displeasure at the Barilla’s supposed bigotry.
What did Barilla say to touch off this tempest? First of all, he did not choose to remark upon this topic: it was his interviewer who chose to raise the issue of the ubiquity of traditional families in Barilla’s marketing. Barilla answered honestly, said that he supports the traditional family, and if gays did not like the fact that his advertising reflected that support, they were free to buy another pasta.
Barilla certainly made a strategic error and perhaps also revealed some animosity towards homosexuals. (Perhaps he may have just spoken thoughtlessly.) He would have been much better off saying, “If people do not like our advertising, they are free to buy another pasta.” There was no need for him to single out gays in his response, and doing so was rapidly turned against him. Reporters even went so far as to simply lift the second half of that sentence out of context and report Barilla as saying, “Gays can buy another pasta.” This ignoring of context verges on journalistic malpractice. Barilla’s other, more liberal, statements have been roundly ignored, for instance: “Io rispetto tutti facciano quello che vogliono senza disturbare gli altri”—“I respect all who do what they wish without disturbing others.” Or: “Nutro il massimo rispetto per gli omosessuali e per la libertà di espressione di chiunque”—“I have the utmost respect for homosexuals and the freedom of expression of anyone.” Read More…
James C. Scott is a political scientist, anthropologist, and co-director of the agrarian studies program at Yale University. His most notable previous work was Seeing Like a State, which deftly described the consequences of the drive towards standardization, homogeneity, and quantifiable (and thus measurable) standards of efficiency produced by the rise of the bureaucratic nation-state from the 1500s onward.
This volume is distilled from a course on anarchism that Scott taught 20 years ago and comprises six essays centered around a theme, rather than a single, sustained argument. An idealist who believed in revolutionary change in the 1960s, Scott became disillusioned when he realized that “virtually every major successful revolution ended by creating a state more powerful than the one it overthrew… able to extract more resources from and exercise more control over the very population it was designed to serve.” He came to appreciate the anarchist critique of these revolutions, and many other anarchist “squints” on things as well, but could not buy the total program: “I believe that both theoretically and practically, the abolition of the state is not an option. We are stuck, alas, with Leviathan… and the challenge is to tame it.”
Even here Scott is no starry-eyed optimist, as he adds: “That challenge may well be beyond our reach.” And so we see a former radical and current appreciator of anarchism reaching the essential conservative insight that reality may severely constrain our ability to realize our imaginings.
In the first chapter, “The Uses of Disorder and ‘Charisma,’” Scott presents one of his more problematic ideas. It is introduced by the story of his seeing German pedestrians habitually failing to cross an intersection against the light, despite the road being empty of traffic. He argues that the Germans could stand some practice at law-breaking, which would help avoid any possible repeat of the 1930s and ’40s. Well, certainly it is good to have the spine to break manifestly unjust laws. But Scott goes much further than that, suggesting that “every day or so” we should “break some law that makes no sense, even if it’s only jaywalking,” in what Scott calls “anarchist calisthenics.”
This attitude could, I think, easily lead to contempt for the law, and needs to be balanced by a healthy, Socratic respect for the value of the rule of law for social life. (To Scott’s credit, he does admit that deciding when to engage in such calisthenics requires “careful thought.”)
While giving two cheers for anarchism, Scott is not particularly well disposed towards right-wing libertarianism or anarcho-capitalism. He pointedly notes: “The last strand of anarchist thought I definitely wish to distance myself from is the sort of libertarianism that tolerates (or even encourages) great differences in wealth, property, and status.” Contrary to the atomic individualism that underlies much contemporary “free market” political economy, Scott insists that individuals are significantly shaped by the framework of social institutions in which they conduct their lives. Human beings were never the atomic individuals of neoclassical economics, but its hegemony is making them more and more resemble its assumptions about them:
Further, the neoliberal celebration of the individual maximizer over society, of individual freehold property over common property, of the treatment of land (nature) and labor (human work life) as market commodities, and… cost-benefit analysis (e.g. shadow pricing for the value of a sunset or an endangered view) all encourage habits of social calculation that smack of social Darwinism.
In the next chapter, “Vernacular Order, Official Order,” Scott revisits a theme he explored to great effect in Seeing Like a State: “The people” are attuned to a local, “vernacular” context and vocabulary that require intimate knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place. For instance, the people of Durham, Connecticut call a certain road “Guilford Road” because that is where it takes them. But the residents of Guilford call the same highway “Durham Road.” The state, on the other hand, operating as it were from on high, has a difficult time with such subtleties and so slaps on a label that fits the street into a larger, abstract scheme covering all of Connecticut, and so it becomes “Route 77.”
Taking such an aerial view can make sense at times, but it can also be destructive, as in the case of modernist urban planning, where Scott evokes the great urbanist Jane Jacobs:
One sees in the newspapers photographs from beaming city officials and architects looking down on the successful model as if they were in helicopters, or gods. What is astounding, from a vernacular perspective, is that no one ever experiences the city from that height or angle. The presumptive ground-level experience of real pedestrians—window-shoppers, errand-runners, aimlessly strolling lovers—is left entirely out of the urban-planning equation.
Scott is suspicious of impersonal, rationalist plans and institutions in general, not just those forwarded by the state. For instance, “scientific” forestry—the practice of planting “forests” in large monocrops of a single age—is another of his targets. Now, certainly states have been involved in that practice but so have large private firms. At first the practice seemed beneficial: the result was large tracts of trees that could be easily managed and harvested efficiently with predictable yields. But after a century, extremely low biodiversity and very high susceptibility to pests and diseases made these places famous not for their efficiency but for “forest death.”
In another, frightening tale of private but impersonal institutions, he describes searching for a nice convalescent home for his two aunts. He hears good things from all of the residents of each home he visits, until he happens to be left alone with one for a moment. Then she hurriedly tells Scott that her home is horrible but she was afraid to say so in the presence of the staff because they punished residents for any complaining—by, for instance, neglecting to bathe them. Scott realized he was witnessing a “regime of low-level terror.” From that point on, he tried to see residents at other homes with no staff present, but three out of the four institutions he visited refused his request.
Continuing the same theme, Scott’s case for local shops is such a good enumeration of the many ways in which they are superior to the giant chain stores that it is worth quoting at length:
It is surely the case that ‘big box’ stores can, owing again to their clout as buyers, deliver a host of manufactured goods at a cheaper price than the petty bourgeoisie. What is not so clear, however, is whether, once one has factored in all the public goods… the petty bourgeoisie provides—informal social work, public safety, the aesthetic pleasures of an animated and interesting streetscape, a large variety of social experiences and personalized services, acquaintance networks, informal neighborhood news and gossip, a building block of social solidarity and public action, and (in the case of the smallholding peasantry) good stewardship of the land—the petty bourgeoisie might not be in a full accounting, a far better bargain, in the long run, than the large, impersonal capitalist firm.
In another paean to spontaneous ordering, Scott describes the “shared space” concept of improving traffic flow that has been gaining ground of late, especially in Europe. It turns out that removing traffic lights can make driving, biking, and walking in dense conditions safer, when done properly. Hans Monderman, the pioneer of this concept, did not simply yank the light from the busiest intersection in Drachten, the Netherlands: he replaced it with a traffic circle, a bike path, and a separate pedestrian area. Furthermore, as Scott notes, drivers’ increased alertness in these new situations is “abetted by the law,” which penalizes those it holds responsible for accidents.
Here we glimpse part of the reason for Scott’s two rather than three cheers for anarchism: spontaneous ordering can take care of many things we typically believe require central direction, but the successful examples we see around us tend to rely upon an underlying, state-supplied order.
Scott also takes on the Bush administration’s “No Child Left Behind” legislation, which predictably resulted in teachers “teaching to the test” and in fact often falsifying results to meet standards imposed from the top downward. Scott explains the perverse results by invoking “Goodheart’s law [which] holds that ‘when a measure becomes a target it ceases to be a good measure.’ And Matthew Light clarifies: ‘An authority sets some quantitative standard to measure a particular achievement; those responsible for meeting that standard do so, but not in the way which was intended.’”
At the same time the United States was dumbing down its educational system in this fashion, Scott notes that, ironically, many other nations were doing away with such standardization, with good results, while thinking they were following the American model. He adds another example of the problematic nature of such “one-size-fits-all” measures, that of French kings, who, wishing to tax (presumably wealthier) subjects with larger houses more than those with smaller ones, instituted a tax based on the number of windows and doors a subject’s house had. The result? Houses in France had fewer and fewer windows and doors as time went on, whatever their size.
These cases segue into one of the most interesting claims of this book: the fixation on what is measurable in political decision-making is a way of pretending to be apolitical while actually favoring a certain style of politics—technocratic, elitist, analytical, managerial. For instance, Scott argues, cost-benefit analysis is not a politically neutral way to make decisions, it is a way to make a political decision by deciding what costs count for what and what benefits count for what, while pretending that one is not doing so and attention is being paid to “Just the facts, ma’am.” Often such a fixation has been established with the laudable goal of eliminating discrimination, but the result is perverse: “While fending off charges of bias or favoritism, such techniques… succeeded brilliantly in entrenching a political agenda at the level of procedures and conventions of calculation that is doubly opaque and inaccessible.”
The aspects of Scott’s work that I have been able to examine above, although they don’t do justice to the entire book, demonstrate that the typical left-right axis by which political positions are classified is seriously inadequate to the task of handling a thinker like Scott. His case against big government is going to appeal to libertarians. His demonstrations of the wisdom often contained in traditions and customs will be attractive to conservatives. And his concerns with lessening inequalities of wealth and power will be congenial to progressives. So where does he fit on the left-right axis? Nowhere, I’d say: he is his own man. And, setting aside its many other virtues, that alone makes this a book worth reading.
Gene Callahan teaches economics at SUNY Purchase and is the author of Oakeshott on Rome and America.
Eric Voegelin often is regarded as a major figure in 20th-century conservative thought—one of his concepts inspired what has been a popular catchphrase on the right for decades, “don’t immanentize the eschaton”—but he rejected ideological labels. In his youth, in Vienna, he attended the famous Mises Circle seminars, where he developed lasting friendships with figures who would be important in the revival of classical liberalism, such as F.A. Hayek, but he later rejected their libertarianism as yet another misguided offshoot of the Enlightenment project. Voegelin has sometimes been paired with the British political theorist Michael Oakeshott, who greatly admired his work, but he grounded his political theorizing in a spiritual vision in a way that was quite foreign to Oakeshott’s thought. Voegelin once wrote, “I have been called every conceivable name by partisans of this or that ideology… a Communist, a Fascist, a National Socialist, an old liberal, a new liberal, a Jew, a Catholic, a Protestant, a Platonist, a neo-Augustinian, a Thomist, and of course a Hegelian.”
But whatever paradoxes he embodied, Voegelin was, first and foremost, a passionate seeker for truth. He paid no attention to what party his findings might please or displease, and he was willing to abandon vast amounts of writing, material that might have enhanced his reputation as scholar, when the development of his thought led him to believe that he needed to pursue a different direction. As such, his ideas deserve the attention of anyone who sincerely seeks for the origins of political order. And they have a timely relevance given recent American ventures aimed at fixing the problems of the world through military interventions in far-flung regions.
Voegelin was born in Cologne, Germany in 1901. His family moved to Vienna when he was nine, and there he earned a Ph.D. in political science in 1922, under the dual supervision of Hans Kelsen, the author of the constitution of the new Austrian republic, and the economist Othmar Spann. He subsequently studied law in Berlin and Heidelberg and spent a summer at Oxford University mastering English. (He commented that his English was so poor when he arrived that he spent some minutes wondering why a street-corner speaker was so enthusiastic about the benefits of cheeses, before he realized the man was preaching about Jesus.) He then traveled to the United States, where he took courses at Columbia with John Dewey, Harvard with Alfred North Whitehead, and Wisconsin with John R. Commons, where he said he first discovered “the real, authentic America.”
Upon returning to Austria, he resumed attending the Mises Seminar, and he published two works critical of the then ascendant doctrine of racism. These made him a target of the Nazis and led to his dismissal from the University of Vienna after the Anschluss. As with many other Austrian intellectuals, the onslaught of Nazism made him leave Austria. (He and his wife managed to obtain their visas and flee to Switzerland on the very day the Gestapo came to seize his passport.) Voegelin eventually settled at Louisiana State University, where he taught for 16 years, before coming full circle and returning to Germany to promote American-style constitutional democracy in his native land. The hostility generated by his declaration that the blame for the rise of Nazism could not be pinned solely on the Nazi Party elite, but must be shared by the German people in general, led him to return to the United States, where he died in 1985.
During his lifelong search for the roots of social order, Voegelin came to understand politics not as an autonomous sphere of activity independent of a nation’s culture, but as the public articulation of how a society conceives the proper relationship of its members both to one another and to the rest of the cosmos. Only when a society’s political institutions are an organic product of a widely shared and existentially workable conception of mankind’s place in the universe will they successfully order social life. As a corollary of his understanding of political life, Voegelin rejected the contemporary, rationalist faith in the power of “well-designed,” written constitutions to ensure the continued existence of a healthy polity. He argued that “if a government is nothing but representative in the constitutional sense, a [truly] representational ruler will sooner or later make an end of it… When a representative does not fulfill his existential task, no constitutional legality of his position will save him.”
For Voegelin, a truly “representative” government entails, much more crucially than the relatively superficial fact that citizens have some voice in their government, first of all that a government addresses the basic needs of “securing domestic peace, the defense of the realm, the administration of justice, and taking care of the welfare of the people.” Secondly, a political order ought to represent its participants’ understanding of their place in the cosmos. It may help in grasping Voegelin’s meaning here to think of the Muslim world, where attempts to create liberal, constitutional democracies can result in Islamic theocracies instead: the first type of government is “representative” in the narrow, constitutional sense, while the second actually represents those societies’ own understanding of their place in the world.
Voegelin undertook extensive historical analysis to support his view of the representative character of healthy polities, analysis that appeared chiefly in his great, multi-volume works History of Political Ideas—which was largely unpublished during Voegelin’s life because his scholarship prompted him to change the focus of his research—and Order and History. This undertaking was more than merely illustrative of his ideas, since he understood political representation itself not as a timeless, static construct but as an ongoing historical process, so that an adequate political representation for one time and place will fail to be representative in a different time or for a different people.
The earliest type of representation Voegelin described is that characterizing the ancient “cosmological empires,” such as those of Egypt and the Near East. Their imperial governments succeeded in organizing those societies for millennia because they were grounded in cosmic mythologies that, while containing cyclical phenomena like day and night and the seasons, depicted the sequence of such cycles as eternal and unchanging. They “symbolized politically organized society as a cosmic analogue… by letting vegetative rhythms and celestial revolutions function as models for the structural and procedural order of society.”
The sensible course for members of a society with such a self-understanding was to reconcile themselves to their fixed roles in the functioning of this implacable, if awe-inspiring, universe. The emperor or pharaoh was a divine being, the representative for his society of the ruling god of the cosmic order, and as remote and unapproachable as was that god. The demise of the cosmological empires in the Mediterranean world came with Alexander the Great’s conquests. After his empire was divided among his generals following his death, the new monarchs could not plausibly claim the divine mandate that native rulers had asserted as the basis of their authority since their ascension was so clearly based on military conquest and not on some ancient act of a god seeking to provide the now-conquered peoples with a divine guide.
The basis of the Greek polis was the Hellenic pantheon. When the faith in that pantheon was undermined by the work of philosophers, the polis ceased to be a viable form of polity, as those resisting its passing recognized when they condemned Socrates to death for not believing in the civic gods. The Romans, a people not generally prone to theoretical speculation, managed to sustain their republican city-state model of politics far longer than had the Greeks but eventually the stresses produced by the spoils of possessing a vast empire and the demands of ruling it—as well as the increasing influence of Greek philosophical thought in Rome—proved fatal to that republic as well.
Mediterranean civilization then entered a period of crisis characterized by cynical, imperial rule by the Roman emperors and an urgent search for a new ordering principle for social existence among their subjects, which produced the multitude of cults and creeds that proliferated during the imperial centuries. The crisis was finally resolved when Christianity, institutionalized in the Catholic Church, triumphed as the new basis for organizing Western society, while the Orthodox Church, centered in Constantinople, played a similar role in the East.
Voegelin contends that this medieval Christian order began to fracture due to the de-spiritualization of the Church that resulted from its increasing focus on power over secular affairs. Having succeeded in restoring civil order to Western Europe during the several centuries following the fall of Rome, the Church would have done best, as Voegelin saw it, to have withdrawn voluntarily “from its material position as the greatest economic power, which could be justified earlier by the actual civilizing performance.” Furthermore, the new theories of natural philosophy produced by the emerging “independent, secular civilization… required a voluntary surrender on the part of the Church of those of its ancient civilizational elements which proved incompatible with the new Western civilization… [but] again the Church proved hesitant in adjusting adequately and in time.”
The crisis caused by the Church’s failure to adjust its situation to the new realities came to a head with the splintering of Western Christianity during the Protestant Reformation and the ascendancy of the authority the nation-state over that of the Church.
The newly dominant nation-states energetically and repeatedly attempted to create novel myths that could ground their rule over their subjects. But these were composed from what Voegelin called “hieroglyphs,” superficial invocations of a pre-existing concept that failed to embody its essence because those invoking it had not themselves experienced the reality behind the original concept. As hieroglyphs, the terms were adopted because of the perceived authority they embodied. But as they were being employed without the context from which their original validity arose, none of these efforts created a genuine basis for a stable and humane order.
The perception of the hollow core of the new social arrangements became the motivation for and the target of a series of modern utopian and revolutionary ideologies, culminating in fascism and communism. These movements evoked what had been living symbols for medieval Europe—such as “salvation,” “the end times,” and the “communion of the saints”—but as the revolutionaries had lost touch with the spiritual foundation of those symbols, they perverted them into political slogans, such as “emancipation of the proletariat,” “the communist utopia,” and “the revolutionary vanguard.”
This analysis is the source of the phrase “immanentize the eschaton”: as Voegelin understood it, these revolutionary movements had mistaken a spiritual symbol, that of the ultimate triumphant kingdom of heaven (the eschaton), for a possible goal of mundane politics, and they were attempting to create heaven on earth (the immanentizing) through revolutionary action. He sometimes described this urge to create heaven on earth by political means as “Gnostic,” especially in what remains his most popular work, The New Science of Politics. (Voegelin later came to question the historical accuracy of his choice of terminology.)
But communism and fascism were not the only options on the table when Voegelin was writing: the constitutional liberal democracies, especially those of the Anglosphere, resisted the revolutionary movements. While Voegelin was not a modern liberal, his attitude towards these regimes was considerably more sympathetic than it was towards communism or fascism. He saw certain tendencies in the Western democracies, such as the near worship of material well-being and the attempted cordoning off of religious convictions into a purely private sphere, as symptoms of the spiritual crisis unfolding in the West. On the other hand, he believed that in places like Britain and the United States there had been less destruction of the West’s classical and Christian cultural foundations, so that the liberal democracies had retained more cultural resources with which to combat the growing disorder than was present elsewhere in Europe.
As a result, he firmly supported the liberal democracies in their effort to resist communism and fascism, and his return to Germany after the war was prompted by the hope of promoting an American-inspired political system in his native land. We can best understand Voegelin’s attitude towards liberal democracy as being, “Well, this is the best we can do in the present situation.”
He saw the pendulum of order and decay as always in motion, and he was convinced that one day a new cosmology would arise that would be the basis for a new civilizational order. In the meantime, the Western democracies had at least worked out a way for people with profoundly divergent understandings of their place in the cosmos to live decently ordered lives in relative peace. Always a realist, Voegelin was not one to look down his nose at whatever order it is really possible to achieve in our actual circumstances.
But the liberal democracies are liable to fall victim to their own form of “immanentizing the eschaton” if they mistake the genuinely admirable, albeit limited, order they have been able to achieve for the universal goal of all history and all mankind. That error, I suggest, lies behind the utopian adventurism of America’s recent foreign policy, in both its neoconservative and liberal Wilsonian forms. Voegelin’s analysis of “Gnosticism” can help us to understand better the nature of that tendency in Western foreign policy. (We can still use his term “Gnostic” while acknowledging, as he did, its questionable historical connection to ancient Gnosticism.)
Voegelin was no pacifist—for instance, he was committed to the idea that the West had a responsibility to militarily resist the expansive barbarism of the Soviet Union. Yet it is unlikely that he would have had any patience for the utopian Western triumphalism often exhibited by neoconservatives and Wilsonians.
What Voegelin called “the Gnostic personality” has great difficulty accepting that the impermanence of temporal existence is inherent in its nature. Therefore, as he wrote, the Gnostic seeks to freeze “history into an everlasting final realm on this earth.” The common view that any nation not embracing some form of liberal, constitutional democracy is in need of Western re-education, by force if necessary, and the consequent fixation on installing such regimes wherever possible, displays a faith that we in the West have achieved the pinnacle of social arrangements and should “freeze history.”
One of the chief vices Voegelin ascribes to Gnosticism is the will to live in a dream world and the reluctance to allow reality to intrude upon the dream. During the many years of chaotic violence following America’s “victory” in Iraq, the difficulty of continuously evading the facts on the ground compelled some who supported the war to admit that things did not proceed as envisioned in their prewar fantasy. Even so, few of these reluctant realists are moved to concede that launching the war was a mistake. A popular dodge they engage in is to ask critics, “So, you’d prefer it if Hussein was still in power and still oppressing the Iraqi people?”
That riposte assumes that, if a goal is laudable when evaluated in a vacuum from which contraindications have been eliminated, then pursuing it is fully justified. Unfortunately, as the post-invasion years in Iraq demonstrate, it was quite possible to depose Hussein while creating greater misfortunes for Iraqis. The Western moral tradition developed primarily by the Greek philosophers and Christian theologians denied that a claim of good intentions was a sufficient defense of the morality of an action. This tradition held that anyone seeking to pursue the good was obligated to go further, giving as much prudent consideration to the likely ramifications of a choice as circumstances allowed.
But in the Gnostic dream world, the question of whether the supposed beneficiaries of one’s virtuously motivated crusade realistically can be expected to gain or lose as a result of it is dismissed as an unseemly compromise with reality. What matters to the Gnostic revolutionary is that his scheme intends a worthy outcome; that alone justifies undertaking it. Such contempt for attending to the messy and complex circumstances of the real world is exemplified in the account of George W. Bush’s foreign policy that one of his advisers provided to a puzzled journalist, Ron Suskind, who described their encounter in the New York Times Magazine:
The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.’
As it became obvious that their Iraq adventure was not living up to its promise of rapidly and almost without cost producing a stable, democratic, and pro-Western regime in the midst of the Arab world, supporters of the war were loath to entertain the possibility that its failure was due to their unrealistic understanding of the situation. Instead, they often sought to place the blame on the shortcomings of those they nobly had attempted to rescue, namely, the people of Iraq. Voegelin had noted this Gnostic tendency several decades earlier: “The gap between intended and real effect will be imputed not to the Gnostic immorality of ignoring the structure of reality but to the immorality of some other person or society that does not behave as it should according to the dream conception of cause and effect.”
Much more could be said concerning the relevance of Voegelin’s political philosophy to our recent foreign policy, but the brief hints offered above should be enough to persuade those open to such realistic analysis to read The New Science of Politics and draw further conclusions for themselves.
While it is true that Voegelin resisted being assigned to any ideological pigeonhole, there are important aspects of his thought that are conservative in nature. He rejected the notion, sometimes present in romantic conservatism, that the solution to our present troubles can lie in the recreation of some past state of affairs: he was too keenly aware that history moves ever onward, and the past is irretrievably behind us, to fall prey to what we might call “nostalgic utopianism.” Nevertheless, he held that our traditions must be studied closely and adequately understood because, while it is nonsensical to try to duplicate the past, still it is only by understanding the insights achieved by our forebears that we can move forward with any hope of a happy outcome.
While historical circumstances never repeat, Voegelin understood human nature and its relation to the eternal to create a similar ground in all times and places, an insight that surely is at the core of any genuine conservatism. Thus, it is our task to recreate, in our own minds, the brilliant advances in understanding the human condition that were achieved by such figures as Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas. Those advances serve as the foundation for our efforts to respond adequately to the novel conditions of our time. Voegelin’s message is one that any thoughtful conservative must try heed.
Gene Callahan teaches economics at SUNY Purchase and is the author of Oakeshott on Rome and America.