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Root Causes

The Crisis Behind Our Crisis, Alexander Boot, St. Matthew Publishing, 326 pages

By Paul Gottfried | June 17, 2011

It is commonly believed that the fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree. In the case of Alexander Boot and his celebrated son Max, we may have a grand exception to this rule. It is indeed hard to associate father and son in either their views or their prose. While the son grinds out neoconservative agitprop for the Wall Street Journal, the father expresses thoughts that question all the conventional progressive opinions of the age.

His close friend Anthony Daniels (also known as Theodore Dalrymple), who introduces this book on the spiritual roots of our present economic crisis, praises Alexander Boot’s “implacable logic” and “grasp of history.” Equally apparent for Daniels is that Boot writes with a facility that is all the more amazing given that he did not leave Russia until 1973, when he was already a grown man. His first language is Russian—he graduated from Moscow University—and his previous book was a critical appraisal of the Tolstoy. Also noteworthy is that Boot, like Dalrymple, spends much of his time in the French countryside, where he and his bilingual wife, pianist Penelope Blackie, own a welcoming home.

In The Crisis Behind Our Crisis, we are offered an extended homily on the wages of greed. Boot examines the inflation of credit, the frequency of ill-advised bank loans, and reckless government fiscal policies. He addresses these knotty problems with definite expertise. The “successful business career” mentioned on the dust jacket refers to the many decades of his professional life spent doing public relations for some of the commercial interests he treats contemptuously in his book.

Boot explores the metaphysical and moral origins of what are usually viewed as strictly financial questions. A complaint to which he keeps returning is the attempt by social scientists to understand “shifts in human behavior” through predictive paradigms. Conventional wisdom has it that one should be able to anticipate “tectonic shifts” and “tremors in the market” by plotting twists and turns in collective behavior. The repeated failure to “paradigm” accurately, however, has not led those doing this work to reconsider their craft. Instead they pester us with alternative mathematical models.

Although not a conscious disciple of Ludwig von Mises, Boot follows the Austrian economist by treating skeptically those who claim to be predicting economic behavior. He is also unsympathetic to those who overspend, and he shuns the bromide that it’s the government’s business to bail out individuals or corporate interests that have been driven by “gluttonous appetites” into making bad financial choices.

Much of what Boot discusses in his work is not economic. The Crisis Behind Our Crisis is mostly about history, philosophy, and the Christian convictions of the author. Although it is never explicitly mentioned, the author underwent a conversion to Christianity, in the form of High Church Anglicanism, with the Reverend Dr. Peter Mullen—the first person whom he thanks in this work, for “keeping me on the straight and narrow.” Although the reference is to Father Mullen’s metaphysical insights, one might also imagine that Boot considers him a spiritual advisor since he attends his chapel with great regularity.

Nonetheless it would be a mistake to consider Boot a traditional Anglican, in the sense of being someone searching for a via media between Rome and Geneva. His High Church inclinations are so over the top that the only religion he seems to be willing to defend is pre-Reformation Roman Catholicism. He is highly critical of other expressions of the Christian faith, including Eastern Orthodoxy and most particularly Reformation Protestantism. Luther and Calvin get the back of his hand, and before Boot is through with the Reformation fathers, we learn that they were driven by their theological obstinacy into believing in “arbitrary predestination” and the utter worthlessness of human nature.

Boot also devotes considerable space to Luther’s unkind references to Jews from his Table Talks and stresses the direct link between the German Reformer and the Holocaust. He ambitiously digs up obscure slighting references to Jews ascribed to Calvin, who has been—with some justification—attacked by Catholics for “Hebraizing” Christianity. By the time Boot, who is of Jewish origin, is done with this brief, one might imagine that the Reformation was an anti-Semitic outburst.

The historical facts point in a different direction. Protestant countries almost without exception were more tolerant of Jews than Catholic ones. While Spain and Portugal were expelling Jews, the Calvinist Palatinate, Holland, and Cromwell’s England were granting them asylum. For all the anti-Semitic remarks one might find in early Protestant figures, one would have even less trouble locating such language among their Catholic contemporaries. The most theologically important and politically powerful medieval Pope, Innocent III, made it obligatory for Jews living under his rule to wear yellow stars.

Boot would like to have it both ways. After telling us that Luther and other Reformers held a “profoundly pessimistic view of human nature,” for which Boot criticizes them, we are then told that Protestants pushed the West toward its present excesses of materialism and self-centeredness. Boot is correct in making both observations; nonetheless, it would be necessary for him to deal with the problem of unintended consequences in order to show how the Reformation led to the modern era. The path from one to the other was far more crooked than Boot suggests.

TAC June 2011 issueDespite these conceptual weaknesses, the author is justified in trying to see the whole picture when he deals with how the past became the present. In a discussion with his son, who was then preparing for his neoconservative employers the authorized narrative about the war in Iraq, Boot asked what Max had read about the Crusades. He was told that “outside reading” was not necessary. When he inquired further what Max had learned about Iraq, he was curtly dismissed with this rejoinder: “more than enough to write about.” This is exactly the opposite of how the father proceeds, which is by looking for root causes in the distant past.

Although there are many brilliantly written passages in his book, the ones that stand out are in his dissection of “liberal democracy.” His ridicule of this now fashionable deity is withering:

Liberal democracy, so beloved of American neoconservatives that they are prepared to lay about them like MacDuff to spread it to every tribal society on earth, is in fact neither truly democratic nor particularly liberal. As it presupposes the ad infinitum expansion of a centralized state’s ability to acquire ever-growing power over the individual, it is not liberal in any other than the virtual sense of the word. And as the state has dictatorial power (in spite of putting people through the charade of virtual elections every few years to make them believe they govern themselves), it is not democratic. In other words, ‘liberal democracy’ has become nothing but a mendacious slogan of a virtual world.

Note that Boot, a self-proclaimed monarchist, does not show even the slightest taste for any kind of “real democracy.” He thinks most people are not eager to look after themselves as “individuals,” and democracy in practice leads inevitably to centralization and bureaucratic control. To “today’s conservatives” who gripe that “growing centralization undermines democracy,” Boot responds, “This is like saying that pregnancy undermines sex or bankruptcy undermines fiscal responsibility.” When French or British citizens “meekly hand over half their income (or more) knowing that the only result of this transfer will be an increase in the state’s power to extort even more,” they are being true democrats. Should one expect different conduct from those who have neither the interest nor the talent to rule over themselves?

As for the neoconservative truism that democracies never seek war, Boot offers a dramatically different take: “There exist only two reasons for modern states to refrain from fighting wars. One, they feel they do not need a war to increase their power at the time. Two, they fear they may not remain in power as a result.” Boot proceeds to point out that America’s great warrior presidents in the 20th century did not have to worry about either of these restraints when they embroiled their country in overseas bloodbaths.

It might be instructive to compare these observations to a recent syndicated column by Jonah Goldberg on the “genius of liberal democracy.” Unlike Alexander Boot, whose book is printed by an impecunious Anglo-Catholic press, Goldberg and his tributes to America unbounded are read by millions. That is because Goldberg’s views have vastly greater journalistic resources behind them. But this has nothing to do with the inherent logic of the views. The reason, says Goldberg, that our liberal democracy has done so well is that it “mostly means free to be me.” “Freedom in much of the world remains ‘free to be us’,” but apparently the “genius of liberal democracy is that it allows both conceptions to flourish simultaneously, often in healthy tension. Far from perfect, liberal democracy offers the most people the most respect.”

While for Boot liberal democracy poses an historical and semantic problem, for neoconservative writers the same phenomenon does not require painstaking definition. It is just something to be celebrated as uniquely good, whatever the hell it means. The whole thing is about being “free to be me” even while occasionally allowing us “to be free to be us.” The lesson conveyed by the success of Goldberg or Alexander’s son Max is that in our modern media society, it may be counterproductive to know too much political theory. One just wants to cultivate influential friends and let them take it from there.

Paul Gottfried is Raffensperger Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College and author of Encounters: My Life With Nixon, Marcuse, and Other Friends and Teachers, among other works.

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