By Jonah Goldberg
Only once in the last 250,000 years have humans stumbled upon a way to lift ourselves out of the endless cycle of poverty, hunger, and war that defines most of history. If democracy, individualism, and the free market were humankind’s destiny, they should have appeared … earlier in the evolutionary record. The emergence of freedom and prosperity was nothing short of a miracle. As Americans we are doubly blessed, because the radical ideas that made the miracle possible were written not just into the Constitution but in our hearts, laying the groundwork for our uniquely prosperous society. In the last few decades, these political virtues have been turned into vices. … the principles of liberty and the rule of law are under attack …For the West to survive, we must renew our sense of gratitude for what our civilization has given us and rediscover the ideals … that led us out of the bloody muck of the past—or back to the muck we will go. (copied from Amazon’s description)
Humans have an innate moral sense. How we use it depends on the environment we grow up in and how we define morality. The desire for unity and distrust of strangers are universal human tendencies. Of all systems ever created that actually increases trust and cooperation among strangers none has been as successful as the market. The market lowers the level of distrust by letting very different peoples and cultures find common interest.
Ideology flows from human nature. We are born to hate every bit as much as we are born to love. The task of parents, schools, society, and civilization, is to teach what we should or should not hate. All good people are supposed to hate evil and refining the definition of evil is the very essence of what civilizations do. Every culture has things it hates and things it loves. Every political ideology has had some group it considered the enemy.
One of the strangest taboos in American life is the taboo against discussing human nature. The ancient Greeks and Romans and every major world religion considered human nature an essential subject for study and contemplation.
Romanticism should be understood as the school of rebellion against the unnatural nature of the Enlightenment and its products; capitalism, democracy, natural rights, and science. Romanticism is a mode of feeling; that modern man is corrupt and unnatural and has been corrupted by modern society. It is a pre-rational passion that is natural to us and has been the fuel behind nationalism, populism, radicalism, and various forms of reactionary politics. It is also the wellspring of most of the great art of the last 300 years, and for that part of the soul that cannot speak through reason and science alone.
For most of human history warfare was normal and the death rate far higher than in the bloody 20th century with all its horrors. Slavery was the norm after the agricultural revolution, but none of the ancient societies were founded on principles of universal human rights. The Romans, Greeks, Chinese, and Egyptians all thought slavery was natural. England abolished the slave trade in 1807 and in all its colonies in 1834. America banned the slave trade in 1808. Slavery disappeared only when industrial capitalism emerged and disappeared first where industrial capitalism appeared first: Great Britain. Slavery was destroyed by capitalism. Adam Smith not only considered it immoral but incompatible with the free market. He thought experience would show that work done by free men would pay off better than the work performed by slaves. A liberal democratic order – and by extension a modern economy – cannot last while tolerating slavery. Slavery and forced labor were the most common forms of labor transactions in most ancient civilizations. The notion that humans can sell their services or labor in a free market is a remarkably recent idea. The reality of socialism taken to its logical conclusion leads to slavery in the form of forced labor. The Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, Communist China, and North Korea have all widely used forced labor.
The development of a strong middle class creates a demand for representative and accountable government. Greed, or covetousness, is natural, but so is altruism without which the human race probably would not have survived. Altruism can be driven by compassion but is closely linked to reciprocity and cooperation. Widespread adoption of the concept of reciprocity has been largely responsible for the survival of the human race.
People want to be rich but even more they want to be admired, respected, and valued and to be worthy of that respect. The desire to be respected is hardwired into us in the desire for status. Cliques are all about status. Status is closely linked to our natural instinct for authority and hierarchy – an instinct in nearly every species of animal that lives in groups.
Moral foundations theory holds that there are six components to moral sentiments that form the basis of all forms of moral reasoning. They are: care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority, and sanctity. How they are applied and interact explains all the variations in human cultures and societies when it comes to defining right and wrong.
The need for norms of behavior is uniform across all societies and forms the sinew of all cooperation, which is impossible without norms or rules. Darwin speculated about how cooperativeness – altruism, reciprocity, consensus around norms, and unity – was the key to human survival. Cooperation explains the evolution of language, religion, warfare, and almost every uniquely human endeavor. Politics is about forming coalitions: within the band, tribe, or any social unit.
Adherence to norms is impossible without some collective understanding that norms must be enforced. Notions of punishment and retribution are both universal and absolutely necessary for cooperation. Cooperation is unsustainable without some kind of sanction against those who do not cooperate. The instinct to enforce group norms manifests itself everywhere, from primitive tribes to sports teams, and even in prisons and hippie utopian communes. When norms are not enforced the unit disintegrates.
Humans are creatures of meaning – significance beyond the rational and material. The modern way of thinking has produced enormous challenges because this way of seeing the world is unnatural, so we yearn to restore meaning where it isn’t, we yearn to find ways of life that are holistic. We attach ourselves to ideologies that promise unity. The romantic temper wants to pull down the walls of our compartmentalized lives and restore a sense of the sacred unity of meaning and purpose. The desire to de-compartmentalize every facet of life: work, family, politics, economics etc. is a reactionary one, a totalitarian temptation and a corruption of the civilization we are blessed to live in. And it’s totally natural.
Corrupting The Miracle
The story of civilization is the story of taming, directing, channeling, or holding at bay human nature. For most of the last 10,000 years things were run along the lines of “what is good for the rulers”. Since the Enlightenment we have greatly improved ideas on how our societies should be organized. The modern ideologies of socialism, nationalism, and democracy all claim the ends of a just society must be betterment of the people. But, human nature being what it is, the elites of every society find ways to benefit nonetheless.
From the very first societies that could call themselves civilized the job of policymakers was to fend off the corrupting power of human nature. When man’s law breaks down nature’s law returns – quickly. Violence is a regression to the mean, an expression of the natural savagery of humanity. Rape and prohibitions against rape are universal to all societies. America – and the West generally – is less tolerant of rape than any other society in human history. The social norms against rape are modern inventions, artificial constructs of our civilization which makes them important, and noble, and worthy of protection. Rape is a regression to man’s basic self. Rape is a tangible manifestation of the corruption of civilized behavior. Goldberg defines corruption as the destruction or spoiling of anything, especially by disintegration or decomposition: putrefaction.
The key to getting humans to play by rules nobler than those of the jungle is the idea of virtue. Virtue requires denying one’s baser instincts and doing what is right. C.S. Lewis said, “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.”, and John Locke, “Fortitude is the guard and support of the other virtues.”
Virtue is not just physical courage but courage in the battle against human nature. No principle is truly held unless holding it comes at a price.
All the progressive ideologies share a teleological faith in inevitable human improvement. But until modern times the metaphorical power of corruption and the eternal cycles of life informed nearly all literature, philosophy, theology, and daily life. It was a footnote to every explanation of why man disappoints God.
This idea that human nature is corrupting of all that is divine, noble, or good, is not merely the stuff of philosophers and theologians. It has been the central problem of politics and administration since the agricultural revolution.
Elites also succumb to the temptations of human nature, and in their corruption the civilization loses the integrity that makes greatness possible in the first place. Nearly every history of every fallen empire confirms this. It’s the age-old story of the elites at the top exempting themselves from the rules and entrenching their power. The longer a cohesive group collectively has power it’s only a matter of time before they take advantage of it at the expense of the general welfare, and the future of the country, empire, etc.
When self-interested groups or coalitions wield the power of the state for their own agenda they become a real threat to the larger society. Two of the most important remedies for this are virtue and pluralism. A profound commitment to certain higher principles is a bulwark against corruption. Pluralism implies that power should be distributed widely in a society. Most of the things we associate with healthy, modern societies are directly attributable to the multiplication of institutions. The idea is to have too many power centers to be able to conduct politics through personal relationships. Most successful human institutions attract talent from as broad a base as possible. The practice of virtue and plurality produces the rule of law which holds that winners are bound by the same rules as losers, and that no one can wield arbitrary power.
Institutional pluralism constrains what elites can do with the State. In societies where the state picks sides control of the state becomes everything. In societies where there are a multitude of institutions everyone has a vested interest in keeping the rules of the game fair for everyone. This was the central insight of the Founders.
Manufactured tribalism is the very essence of identity politics because when all of your identity is bound up in a single group your concern for institutions and people outside of your group vanishes. An open society is one where we have many allegiances – to family and society, to work and faith, etc. Pluralism requires tolerance and realization that our identity may not be the only true or right one.
The mental division of labor makes modernity possible. Modern society’s most important divide is between the impersonal order of contracts, commerce, and law, and the personal order of family, friends, and community. We live in both realms simultaneously, though the rules for these realms could not be more different. Humans were designed to live in bands. The human brain is designed so that we can manage stable social relationships with roughly 150 people. Before the agricultural revolution our human bands were socialist or communist, in that resources were generally shared. The genetic programming clearly emphasized us over me. This programming we are born with grates with modernity constantly.
Those who think money is a corrupting force fail to appreciate that we cannot treat everyone as friends or family. The glory of money – and the rule of law – is that it empowers us to cooperate with strangers. The democratizing power of money is one of the greatest advances of humanity, though insufficiently appreciated.
Every anti-capitalist political ideology is a variant of the idea that society should operate like a family, a tribe, a small community where everyone knows each other. Identity politics in all its forms is just a subset of this worldview.
The miracle of liberal democratic capitalism is not self-sustaining, take it for granted and people will start reverting to the natural impulses of tribalism. “The best will lack all conviction and the worst will be full of passionate intensity – things will fall apart” – Butler
The State, A Myth Agreed Upon
Before the stationary bandit there were only roving bandits. The roving bandits were raiders, warlords, and marauders and they were a staple figure of the state of nature. The threat of roving bandits was far greater once the agricultural revolution spread because agricultural communities were much easier prey than nomadic tribes and there was more to steal. In a world of roving banditry there is little or no incentive for anyone to produce or accumulate anything that may be stolen. It’s a vicious cycle that leaves both the raider and the victim poorer in the long run. Thus the stationary bandit, whose extortion is in the form of taxes or tribute, is a solution to a very serious problem because he provides protection against the roving bandit and so predictability and stability. (Mancur Olson’s work is cited at length and the author’s observations from Edward Banfield’s, The Moral Basis Of A Backwards Society.) The stationary bandit, or warlord, provided protection to the community and introduced stability and predictability, the first blessing of the invisible hand. Because of the social benefits that accrue when individuals are empowered to pursue their own self- interests and specialize economically the whole of society grows richer. The coordination emerges naturally as if guided by an invisible hand.
The stationary bandit has a longer time horizon and so an incentive to make investments in public goods in addition to security. How much he taxes is a question of return on investment. He has an interest in letting his subjects get richer. No society can work satisfactorily if it does not have a peaceful order and some other public goods. The stationary bandit is the first real provider of a peaceful order without which the invisible hand can never appear.
The state has an important role. It regulates the use of violence and protects the right of citizens to use their property. The stationary bandit was the first entity to serve this function. The Mafia works on the same principle of long-term exploitation. They sell protection.
To keep order a large society requires rules so it was almost inevitable that the state would emerge with the agricultural revolution. The almost reflexive self-organization into a kind of permanent battle formation happens again and again in human history. “War made the state and the state made war”. States evolved naturally as a problem-solving response to external aggression.
When the conditions are right, we form states. War and population size are two of those conditions. When societies are provided with security and order, a number of secondary patterns emerge. Labor becomes more specialized, which produces more wealth, and property rights become more secure. It’s a virtuous cycle. When societies get bigger they need ever more formal rules to govern them. Economic growth requires efficient economic organization and this entails the establishment of institutional arrangements and property rights. The agricultural revolution made mass society possible and mass societies could only be maintained through force, both physical and psychological.
Storable wealth creates classes of people and also serves as a means of social control. Money as a storehouse of value is a relatively recent invention.
The State has been defined as “a monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory”. States have laws, means to enforce them, bureaucracies, and systems of taxation. A state must be able to enforce its rules. A society can’t be held together by force alone. It needs an ideology – an internally coherent worldview that tells us how to behave and cooperate. Large-scale societies need a theology metaphysics and in the past always had a specialized ruling class and a specialized clerisy. The development of writing was one of the greatest leaps forward in the history of both coercion and cooperation. The Sumerian’s invented a system for storing and processing information to handle large amounts of mathematical data in the form of written language and by doing so released their social order from the limitations of the human brain so cities, kingdoms and empires could develop. Bookkeeping evolved into a system of lawgiving. It is impossible to overstate the revolutionary nature of the written word. Written law took formal rules and unwritten customs and universalized them.
Many of our most important institutions are embedded with deep reservoirs of knowledge and are evolved problem-solving devices that emerged through a process of discovery and trial and error. So much of what we see in modern society is naturally occurring phenomena, human universals on a mass scale.
The Enlightenment changed the formula. Rather than appealing to myth and mystery, the architects of the Enlightenment appealed to reason. An institution, at its most basic level, is a rule, and before it was a rule it was a story, and religion is the most important of them all. Religion is one of the greatest influences on getting people to cooperate. Religion provides humans with meaning, for reasons to behave a certain way, to treat others a certain way.
Religion itself may be an evolutionary adaptation. Group cooperation is the key to human survival and religion can be an incredibly powerful source of social cohesion, fostering sacrifice for the greater good of the community.
In complex societies the king used the rule of force to keep people in line, but force alone wasn’t enough. Humans have an innate need to know their place in society. We have an instinctual hunger for meaning and order, so large populations needed a story. These varied in detail but the plot and themes were nearly universal. It’s the same story over and over for thousands of years, the ruler is chosen by some divine authority to serve over his people like a father. From the first City States around 4000 BC until around 1800, monarchy, broadly defined, has been the default arrangement for 99% of the time. Hitler, Stalin, and countless other rulers have styled themselves as the father of their country ruling over their children subjects. The strongman didn’t just impose his role of father on his subjects, they asked for it. Every authoritarian leader has claimed to be the group’s father, and because of this claim the worshipful form their flocks, and this yearning has not vanished. This basic idea satisfies some deep innate needs of human beings. If monarchy were unnatural it would not have provided such a stable form of government for so many thousands of years. If desire for a fatherly leader were not hardwired into us it would not be a staple of political cultures around the globe and throughout history.
When democracies fall apart they slip back (are corrupted or degenerate) into authoritarianism. We are seeing this form of social entropy acted out in Venezuela now. All efforts to escape the Miracle of liberal democratic capitalism lead to the same destination. How many millions have died in a quest to find a perfect society that does not and cannot exist? And how many billions have benefited from our discovery of the Miracle. There’s no direction outside of the oases that is the Miracle that won’t take us back to the desert. Any effort to do away with liberal democratic capitalism is reactionary, because they all attempt to restore the unity of purpose that defines the pre-modern or tribal mind.
Socialism, nationalism, communism, fascism, and authoritarians of every stripe are forms of tribalism. The tribal mind despises division. It despises the division of labor and the inequality it fosters. It despises the division between the religious and the secular, between the individual and the group, between civil society and the state. Whether it takes the form of religious orthodoxy, communist dogma, the divine right of kings, or some variant of social justice theory, the same impulse rules: we must all be in it together. The genius of the Miracle lies in the division of labor, not just in manufacturing or science, but in our minds. Except in times of war or some other overarching crisis, meaning cannot be a mass, collective enterprise without crushing the rich ecosystem of institutions that actually give us meaning and ensure liberty and prosperity.
The Birth Of Capitalism, A Glorious Accident
Daniel Hannan in, Inventing Freedom, said England stumbled on the idea that the government ought to be subject to the law, not the other way around. The rule of law created security of property and contract, which led to industrialization and modern capitalism. For the first time in human history a system grew up that rewarded production better than predation.
Why? Hannan identifies five crucial factors:
1. The development of the nation state. A certain amount of cohesiveness and order is required for the Miracle to occur. And that can only come from a regime that applies laws uniformly to a population with a shared identity.
2. A healthy civil society full of competing and complementary institutions that counterbalance the arbitrary power of the state or crown.
3. Island geography. The fact that England was an island and had natural protections from foreign invaders allowed it to be less militarized than other nations and this led to Anglo distrust of standing armies and made political absolutism less necessary. The lack of an absolute ruler gave space for civil society and competing power centers to develop and prevented the king from claiming he owned the country.
4. Religious pluralism. Prior to the Reformation, religion was not a separate sphere of life from work and family.
5. Common law. This was the most important, a legal system that made the state subject to the people rather than the reverse.
The spillover from England and the Netherlands to the rest of Europe was rapid in the 18th century because of virtuous competitive pressure and the shared cultural assumptions and institutions of Christian Western Europe. The demonstration effect has been a constant element in European progress and spread only because Europe was a decentralized system of competing institutions, and that also helped spread the liberal politics that brought prosperity.
The roots of English democracy stretch deep into antiquity. As far back as at least the 600s a social compact between ruler and ruled had evolved organically in England long before the rules were written down. This was a common practice among German tribes in Roman times but the Germanic and Carolingian legislative tradition died out in the 10th century. It’s energetic preservation and promotion in England was exceptional.
Constitutional liberty has important beginnings in Anglo-Saxon England. Feudalism in England was significantly different from feudalism in Western Europe and extremely different from feudalism in Eastern Europe, Russia, China, and the rest of the world. In most feudal societies, kinship rules made the concept of private property, particularly private land, unthinkable, but in England private property was an ancient custom. Hereditary castes – a near universal institution around the world – were uniquely weak in England. England, before the Normans, had no feudal aristocracy. England’s great men never constituted an hereditary caste with legal privileges. They were as subject to the law of the land as anyone else. Aristocracy worked differently in England. In Europe Roman Law was the norm, while in England it was an alien imposition that never took deep root. Roman Law is deductive; lawmakers determine the principal, write it down and impose it on society. Common Law is an emergent property, bubbling up from the society itself, evolving case-by-case. It is thus empirical rather than conceptual; it concerns itself with actual judgments that have been handed down in real cases and asks whether they need to be modified in light of different circumstances. English Common Law recognized the rights of all Englishmen which made all the difference. Magna Carta came after the development of formal institutions of Common Law. The Magna Carta’s requirement that the king rule in consultation with “the Common Council of the Realm” was a nod to more ancient traditions with a new, incalculably valuable precedent for the creation of a formal parliamentary system.
Exceptionalisms in English law include: the right to petition authorities for redress, the rights of the individual, an almost obsessive concern with just taxation, and many other concepts which emerged through trial and error over countless generations. Common law developed and evolved organically over a millennium before Locke wrote its principles down, and, just like the Magna Carta, locked in these principles. The American Founders did something very similar.
America’s Founders invoked England’s highest principles to make the case for their liberties. We should not forget the cultural authority of our Constitution. We should see it as a validation of cultural advances in political philosophy. It’s an expression of a specific culture at a specific time which laid the foundation of everything. The Constitution is a cultural and psychological artifact. It informs the way we think about government, rights, and civil society. One of the greatest services it provides is that it is written down. Humans have a tendency to sacrilize texts. The Constitution is a paper manifestation of the deeper cultural commitment to liberty and limited government. When the American people lose their love of liberty the Constitution will not save us.
What made the American founding such an amazing event was that its authors took the peculiarities of one successful society and culled from its cultural peculiarities universal principles and then wrote them down. They had a lot of help from John Locke who did much of the intellectual groundwork, and from Montesquieu and others, including classical Romans, especially Cicero.
The ingredients of liberty and prosperity have existed for thousands of years. Religious toleration, restraints on monarchy, private property, the sovereignty of the individual, pluralistic institutions, scientific innovation, the rule of law – all can be found piecemeal across the ages. The Chinese were path-breaking scientific and bureaucratic innovators but their ruling classes could not relinquish their political monopoly and eventually snuffed out technological progress to keep it. Private property existed in countless societies but without the other ingredients private property protections did not last. Prosperity itself wasn’t unknown before the Miracle but its wellsprings were always eventually plugged by the imposition of barriers to competition by the elites. To understand how miraculous the Miracle really is we should look more closely at some of the more well-known competing theories about why it happened
Marx recast the traditional Christian stigmatization of moneymaking into a new vocabulary. In his concept of capitalism as exploitation, Marx resurrected the old idea that money is fundamentally unproductive and that only those who physically labor produce, and that not only interest but profit is always ill-gotten.
The idea that excess capital or surplus value fueled capitalism is essential for Marxist explanations of its betrayal. They rest on a psychological desire among the enemies of capitalism to claim that capitalism was born in some kind of original sin. These theories all share the psychological assumption that capitalism marked a wrong turn in humanity’s past.
Marx’s idea, that the innovator and the entrepreneur produce no value, is ridiculous. If capitalism relies on exploitation, why have Westerners gotten so much richer? Capital accumulation is not the engine of capitalism, it is the byproduct of it. The Founders were the product of a politically Protestant worldview so they had no hostility to capitalism.
Nearly all truly complex and important phenomena have multiple, mutually dependent factors that lead to their creation and so it was with the Miracle. Deirdre McCloskey, in her work on the birth of capitalism, said that the Miracle is an attitude, expressed in new ideas. Markets grew because of changing forms of speech about markets and enterprise, which made innovation possible by recognizing it as a good thing. Innovation only works in a climate that welcomes and rewards it. The Chinese and Arab advantages in technology lapsed because the political and religious climate was inhospitable to sustained innovation because innovation disrupts the status quo and undermines those in power.
About the end of the 17th century the English political establishment dropped all systematic hostility to invention, so did public opinion and scholars. It was this unprecedented change in attitudes that made the Miracle possible. The way people talked and thought about how the world worked changed. The great flatline of material misery plodded along unchanged for thousands of years until attitudes changed in England and Holland among intellectuals, aristocrats, the common people, and particularly the bourgeois – the mostly urban, middle and upper middle-class professionals. Prior to that, notions of betterment, innovation, and improvement were seen, literally, as heresy.
For millennia, vested interests – bureaucrats, aristocrats, guilds, priests – formed coalitions to stifle innovations. This is an ancient and universal story of elites seeking to protect their privileges and incomes from the threats of change. It is why China burned its oceangoing vessels in 1525 and the Turk’s banned the printing press in 1729. The merchant guilds that dominated much of Europe for nearly a thousand years endured because they limited competition by excluding most people from the profitable branches of commerce. They were so successful because they efficiently distributed resources to a powerful urban elite, with side benefits for the rulers.
Hostility to invention and free trade was grounded in the broader worldview that money itself is the root of all evil. Until the Enlightenment trade and pursuit of wealth were considered sinful. The official teaching of the Catholic Church echoed these sentiments for centuries. Aristotle was right that finance is contrary to the natural order, but it is also the driver of incredible prosperity and human betterment.
The principle that the Church would serve as the conscience for the realm was a significant advance, creating one of the first and most important mental divisions of labor in the Western mind. Jesus’s separating the realm of faith from the realm of rulers served as an important check on the arbitrary rule of kings by making even rulers answerable to a higher law. This was in marked contrast with Chinese emperors and Islamic sultans. Mohammed played the role of both Caesar and Jesus and the political system he left behind recognized no space between secular and religious authority. Without that space, institutional pluralism and the division of meaning are impossible. Some argue that by the 15th century the internal logic of Christianity’s emphasis on the individual conscience made the Enlightenment all but inevitable.
Material factors are meaningless absent the broader context of culture. Why did the ideas of a Jewish carpenter alter the minds of millions and ultimately conquer the entire Roman Empire itself? But the more important question is: will it last?
The following considers what Goldberg believes the most persuasive theory of why capitalism might be fated to vanish.
Marx’s romantic vision was grounded in profound alienation, and paranoia about the society he lived in. Marx’s theory was a modern sounding rehabilitation of ancient ideas and it was entirely wrong. The idea that the inventor or the entrepreneur creates no value by bringing an idea into the world is absurd. To understand why Marx’s political and sociological analyses missed the mark so drastically look to Joseph Schumpeter. In, Capitalism, Socialism, And Democracy, Schumpeter argued that capitalism was ultimately doomed, but not remotely for the reasons Marx had predicted. Schumpeter saw, and explained, earlier than almost anyone, that the power of capitalism stemmed from the liberation of, and tolerance for, entrepreneurs. The entrepreneur is the engine of innovation and innovation is what drives economic growth by finding new opportunities for wealth. One of Schumpeter’s key, and radical, insights was to look at economic actors as entities over time, and at economics as an evolutionary process. The market is constantly changing and companies that have a monopoly fall prey to innovations by more innovative firms that render them obsolete. The driver of that process is creative destruction.
Schumpeter concluded that capitalism itself would fall prey to a kind of social analogue to creative destruction. The three essential components of his analysis follow: first, capitalism is relentlessly unsentimental, rational, and efficient. The free market tends to wipe away tradition in the name of profit, but the capitalist tide doesn’t stop with clearing away bad forms of tradition, custom, and sentiment. It carves a path through the social landscape, heedless of the social value certain institutions and customs provide. Capital creates a critical frame of mind which, after having destroyed the moral authority of so many other institutions, in the end turns against its own; the rationalist attitude does not stop at the credentials of kings and popes, but goes on to attack private property and the whole scheme of bourgeois values.
Schumpeter called the more sentimental attachments that tell us there are more important things than simple efficiency and profit maximization, extra rational, or extra capital, commitments. The problem is that the free market needs extra rational customs and traditions to survive. The capitalist order not only rests on props made of extra capitalist material but also derives its energy from extra capitalist patterns of behavior which it is apt to destroy. Capitalism emerged from a specific culture and depends on the habits of the heart that made it possible. Thrift, delayed gratification, honesty, the sovereignty of the individual, are products not only of reasoning but also of extra rational commitments derived, in the Western context, from Christianity, custom, history, family, patriotism, language, and all the other ingredients of culture and faith. No institution, or practice, or belief, can survive the destruction of the theory behind it. Schumpeter says democracy is no exception, making the same point made by Goldberg about the Constitution. What sustains the Constitutional order is a faith in it – not merely the arguments for it.
The second component of Schumpeter’s theory is that capitalism’s relentless assault on tradition and custom creates a market opportunity for intellectuals, lawyers, writers, artists, bureaucrats, and other professionals who work with ideas, to undermine and ridicule the existing system. They do so for a host of reasons. Some have a passionate and radical anger at the real, or perceived, injustices of modern society. But there’s another explanation for why the peddlers of words, symbols, and ideas declare war on the existing system: they have a class interest in doing so. Sooner or later in any society the progress of technology will grind to a halt because the forces that used to support innovation become vested interests. Technological progress creates the very forces that destroy it. Intellectuals have a financial motive in arguing for a system in which they would run things, but also a psychological one. That desire is often the more important one. We are wired to want to have higher status than others. We also wired to resent those who we believe have undeservedly higher status than we do. Intellectuals and artistic elites have always heaped scorn on other elites – the wealthy, the military, the bourgeois, the Church. Nietzsche explained the process by which priests used their skills to redefine the culture’s idea of what is virtuous so as to undermine the power of the ruling nobility. Nonintellectual men of action held more power than the priests, and the priests hated them for it. There is one very common thing that unites these different kinds of “priests”. They tend to come from ranks of the bourgeois and the very wealthy themselves. There is something about growing up prosperous that causes people not only to take it for granted but to resent the prosperous. The most radical environmentalists and anti-globalists nowadays are socialist children of capitalist parents.
The third component of Schumpeter’s theory is this: as capitalism creates more and more mass affluence it creates more and more intellectuals until they become a New Class. Until recently intellectuals made a living working for the ruling class. As capitalism makes mass education possible it creates a mass audience, a whole market, for what the intellectuals are selling. And what the intellectuals are selling is resentment of the way things are. This creates a much broader climate of hostility to the social order itself. For such an attitude to develop says Schumpeter, it is necessary that there be groups whose interest it is to work up and organize resentment, to voice it and to lead it. Denigrating and undermining the established order is now not only a lucrative, but a major, part of the culture. In our present condition the most important practical consequence of the guilt insisted on by the liberal ideology is this: that the liberal, in the civilization infected by liberal doctrine and values, is morally disarmed before those whom the liberal regards as less well-off than himself.
The way these vested interests sabotage the engine of innovation is with words and ideas. Our civilization, like every civilization, is a conversation. The decline of our civilization is only inevitable if people stop talking about the right things. When we do not teach our children gratitude and appreciation for their inheritance they will remain childish in the expectations of what politics and economics can accomplish. Cultures that do not cherish their best selves die by their own hand, we protect only what we are grateful for.
The Eternal Battle – Reason Versus The Search For Meaning
The two most important political philosophies of the modern West were developed by Locke and Rousseau and they are in constant battle. Locke believed in the sovereignty of the individual. Rousseau argued that the group was more important than the individual and the general will superior to the individual conscience. Locke thought man was naturally sinful, Rousseau that he was a noble savage in his natural state. Locke said that the right to property and to the fruits of our labor was the keystone of a free and just order. Rousseau thought property was the original sin of civilization and that property in a just society must be managed by the sovereign for the good of the whole community. Locke believed in equality before the law, and the inequality of wealth, merit, and virtue in civil society. Rousseau thought economic inequality the source of all social ills and that one of the most important tasks of government was to prevent extreme inequality. Locke saw the formation of liberal government as the greatest advance for mankind. Rousseau thought the opposite. The relationship between ideas, culture, and politics isn’t incremental or linear but catalytic and interactive. Ideas take root only when the cultural climate is right. Rousseau’s philosophy was a psychological response to the Enlightenment. His whole political philosophy was a psychological tendency.
We give intellectuals credit for creating ideas but more often they give voice to ideas or impulses that already exist as pre-rational attitudes. Or they distill opinions, sentiments, aspirations, and passions that already exist and they feed them back to the people who become intoxicated by them. The Glorious Revolution similarly severed England from its feudal past. The English culled from the past story of themselves and ratified it in a legal principle. The Glorious Revolution was made to preserve England’s ancient, indisputable laws and liberties and their ancient constitution of government.
Locke’s Second Treatise provided the philosophical binding for this story of English liberty, but it contained a radical departure from English particularism with its universal worldview. Locke’s understanding of property is the key to his entire political worldview. The first property right is the right to own yourself, and all other rights derive from it. Government is a necessary tool, created collectively to protect property and life. Locke recognized what Mancur Olson meant when he said that order is the first blessing of the invisible hand. Locke believed that property, and the political order that gave it protection, was literally the vehicle of progress. Locke understood that human ingenuity creates wealth. For Locke, the unalienable rights were life, liberty, and property. Locke believed that property was the route to happiness, the exact opposite of Rousseau’s vision. Locke was interested not in material equality but in equality in the eyes of God, and therefore in the eyes of government.
One of Locke’s targets was the then dominant medieval understanding of human nature. Locke moved politics from a God centered universe to a man centered universe and this meant that just power had to be rooted in consent. Locke elevated reason above revelation, and he believed in pluralism, meritocracy, and tolerance. He believed that man could reason his way through the world and create political structures based upon universal equality under the law and consent. He felt that the rule of law that did not recognize inherited superiority was the ideal means to achieve the peace, safety, and public good of the people. This was a new idea. He wrote that freedom of men under government was having a standing rule to live by that affected everyone alike.
Locke wrote most of the Second Treatise before the Glorious Revolution unfolded (which was treasonous at the time). He saw the emergence of modern society as a story of liberation, of the people and of the mind; Rousseau saw it as a form of oppression. Rousseau knew Dennis Diderot who cofounded and edited the Encyclopedie, a great compendium of the arts and sciences, the most important publication of the French Enlightenment. Rousseau, in his personal character, was a miserable bastard.
Rousseau based his entire political philosophy on a fictional origin story of mankind grounded in his doctrine of the noble savage. Locke thought man was blessed to receive moral laws from God and thus defiance of those laws constituted sin. Rousseau saw it the other way round. Locke saw man’s ability to apply reason and labor to produce useful things as the heart of human progress. Locke saw God’s moral instruction as a blessing; Rousseau so it is a corrupting curse. Rousseau identified private property and the division of labor as the chief drivers of civilizational and economic advance but he hated them. He recognized that we all crave social recognition as special, unique, or important, which he called self-love or pride. He thought the ills of modernity stemmed from an inflammation of self-love, partially because the market system enthrones wealth as the measure of social status. For Rousseau ideology is secondary to passions.
Radicalism in all its forms is romantic. Lenin, Hitler, and all their imitators began with the assumption that the current edifice of civilization is corrupted and must be torn down. Radicalism is romanticism taken to its extreme. Get rid of it all and start over.
Rousseau was the father of the modern idea of alienation. He thought there was an authentic, noble savage inside of each of us and that civilization had corrupted it by making us care more about status, wealth, respect, fame etc.
Rousseau was prescient about the role intellectuals would play in modern societies and how ideologues – intellectuals in every profession that works with ideas and concepts – have replaced priests as the definers of meaning. Rousseau thought that every citizen would have meaning through the group and only through the group. The group itself would be the object of a new religious faith that defines one’s purpose in relation to service to the whole. Rousseau thought we should have public censors who would mold and define public opinion and identify unbelievers in need of extermination.
Rousseau and Locke represent the two main currents in Western civilization. It is a fight between the idea that our escape from the past has been a glorious improvement and the idea that the world we have created is corrupting because it is artificial. One side says that external moral codes and representative government are liberating blessings. The other says that the truth is found, not in the form of universal rules, but in our own feelings and the meaning we get from belonging to a group. The divide is fundamental because it runs straight through the human heart. The tension is not permanently resolvable because the Lockean world is an imposition on human nature. Each of us starts our journey as an ignoble savage. Nobility must be taught – and earned. It is not inherited.
The American Miracle
The first great achievement of the American founding was to assert in writing that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights. The Jews introduced a moral monotheistic framework into the world. Christianity took those precepts and universalized them. Similarly, the English introduced an understanding of rights and liberty into the world – and made it work, and Americans universalized these English ideas.
The Founders started a new and revolutionary new chapter in the story of humanity by broadening the principles laid out by Locke and the English people.
Sir Edward Coke wrote the cultural customs into the common law in 1628. Jefferson took Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration, as an inspiration for his Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. Jefferson took the internal logic of Locke and extended it to its final conclusion. The Statute disestablished the Church of England as the official faith of Virginia and guaranteed religious liberty for Protestants, Catholics, Jews and even pagans. Locke was routinely invoked in sermons, and American ministers, through their sermons, had a great deal to do with establishing a favorable climate for the Declaration and the Revolution.
The American Founders carried the Locke argument further and declared war on hereditary aristocracy. Inherited nobility is an ancient form of identity politics. Identitarianism holds that a person has special status based on criteria not of his own making. Aristocracy should mean rule of the best, not an inherited status.
It’s hard to appreciate how radical a departure the concepts behind the American founding were. The Founders created something new in the world, they knew they couldn’t repeal the laws of human nature so they established a system of government they hoped would make it impossible for any faction to attain a lasting concentrated power. The structure of the federal government was designed to divide power – checks and balances, divided government, separation of powers. Madison wrote in the Federalist Papers that the great security against the gradual concentration of powers in the same department was to give each department the necessary constitutional means and motives to resist encroachments of the others. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. “What is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?”
The Founders understood that the majority could be a threat to liberty. This understanding was an advance on Locke who never explained why majority rule could be tyrannical.
The Constitution’s restrictions are all on the power of the state. The rights of the people, collectively and individually, are upstream of the powers of government. The Constitution, particularly the Bill of Rights, took certain important political questions and made them off-limits from politicians – free speech, freedom of worship, freedom of assembly, the right to bear arms, the right to property, including intellectual property – all the bulwarks against despotism. “Congress shall make no law”, etc.
The fact that the Constitution was written down in clear language and made hard to change provided assurance that we would not sacrifice some fundamental liberty in the heat of a given moment. It’s a national conscience. The French revolutionaries wanted to create a whole new path for humanity. The Americans rejected the perfectibility of man, and thought the best government could do was to take man’s nature into account and channel it toward productive ends. The contrast is between those who wanted to advance the wheel of history with airy philosophical concepts versus “the state is there to create a zone of liberty for people to choose their own direction”. The American Constitution does not mean that the government cannot intervene in the society or the economy, but that when it does it should be to protect liberty, which Madison called “the first object of government.”
Adam Smith wrote that “Little else is required to carry states to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism but peace, easy taxes and a tolerable administration of justice. All governments which thwart this natural course are obliged to be oppressive and tyrannical.”
Daniel Hannan and Matt Ridley thought that much of the prosperity and expansion of the British Empire was due to the fact that the affluent nobility had a much lower mortality rate than the poor and so produced a large cohort of educated and ambitious young men who were not firstborn, so were encouraged to make their way in the world.
Goldberg says Seymour Martin Lipset was the greatest political sociologist and student of American exceptionalism since James Bryce and Tocqueville.
The Revolution was for both political and economic freedom and was a radical expansion of even the British understanding of liberty.
Daniel Boorstin said the very idea of income was reinvented in America. In Europe the important metric was property ownership, specifically land, because that was the measure by which the society assigned status. In America wealth had become disassociated from inherited status or nobility. The indispensable ingredient to America’s growth was a certain kind of individual and a specific class of people: the entrepreneur and the bourgeoisie. In Europe the entrepreneur was feared and distrusted – innovation had a negative connotation until the Industrial Revolution. In England and Holland, business innovators were more honored than anywhere else in the old world, but in the new world the inventor became a hero. In America the whole country was being built around a fundamentally bourgeois worldview and the government reflected their interests and aspirations.
In Europe it was hard to form a legal corporation. The ability to do so was entrenched in politics and status. In America the corporation was democratized by being made a standardized product, available to anyone. The old iron triumvirate of class, guild, and crown that made economic advance an act of rebellion against the status quo had been overthrown. In the century and a half following the Revolution America had the greatest improvement in material prosperity of any nation in human history. By 1900 Andrew Carnegie made more steel than all of Great Britain.
The natural tendency of man to form coalitions, factions, guilds, and aristocracies manifested itself continually throughout American history. But the combined power of the constitutional order and sheer economic growth tended to keep it at bay.
The free market is the greatest anti-poverty program in all of human history. It is also the only antipoverty program in the whole of human history. The legal system is critical because it provides the guardrails for continuing human improvement.
America unleashed another kind of entrepreneurialism on the world – its culture of liberty, its legal doctrines of natural rights, and its unprecedented material prosperity made it possible for the masses to earn their own success as they defined it. But by removing the idea of external authority and exalting the sovereignty of the personal, we’ve opened the door for human nature to come rushing back in.
America’s Founders rejected a line of thought that stretches from Plato’s Republic, through Rousseau’s social contract, to many modern ideologies – that men – the right men, disinterested men – could be trusted with unchecked power.
The Founders placed enormous checks on the President’s power. The Founders believed the system could work only if the public remained virtuous, that the good character of the people was the best guarantor of fidelity to the law. Washington said “Arbitrary power is most easily established on the ruins of liberty abased to licentiousness.”
More than any other founder, Adams was worried about the possibility that aristocracy could return. The solution lay in recognizing and planning for the possibility by finding means to limit the power of any powerful clique. Aristocracies are natural and we should think of them as simply the elites, or the ruling classes. In any communist country the members of the Party in the higher ranks are members of the aristocratic class.
Every large or complex society has elites. Every organization of even modest size does. All organizations inevitably become ruled by an elite few. The elites take on more responsibilities and in the process gain power and expand their access to special knowledge (administrative secrets) about how the organization works. They consolidate their power further by allocating resources to reward allies and punish foes.
To fret about inequality in a free society is to fret about the problem of freedom itself, for with freedom there will always be inequality. The relevant question is not, how can we avoid elites, but what kind of elites shall we raise up and how do we keep them accountable to the rule of law and prevent them from acting in their self-interest to threaten the rule of law, liberty, and the common good?
The Founders particularly studied England under Cromwell and the dissolution of both the Roman Republic and of Venice with this problem in mind.
Venice created the Great Council and one of the first systems of checks and balances and divided government. These political reforms led to a further series of institutional innovations: in law, the creation of independent magistrates, courts, the Court of Appeals, and new private contract and bankruptcy laws. Acemoglu and Robinson in, Why Nations Fail, said these new Venetian economic institutions allowed the creation of new legal business forms and new types of contracts resulting in rapid financial innovation and the beginning of modern banking. Progress stopped when, in order to prevent competition from each new wave of enterprising young men, the Great Council became a permanent and hereditary aristocracy instead of an institution advancing republicanism and merit. Having closed off politics from upstarts, the Council soon closed off the economy from upstarts as well – the beginning of the end of Venetian prosperity.
The Founders understood this problem and understood that people will always combine in factions. The trick was to prevent any faction, including a majority of the people, from commandeering the state for its own ambitions. Madison thought the only remedy to the problem of majoritarian factions taking over the government was to divide the community into so great a number of interested parties that a majority would not be likely to have a common interest separate from that of the whole, or of a minority; and if they did that it would be hard for them to unite to pursue it. Material prosperity, combined with political liberty, fostered and deepened America’s cultural freedom.
Through competition among capitalists, capital itself is every year more effective in its production, and commodities that have been the luxuries of one generation become the comforts of the next, and the necessities of the third. (Atkinson)
From the time of the Founding until the early 20th century the natural tendency to form new aristocracies and guilds was held largely in check, thanks to robust economic growth and the fact that the nation was too large, too mobile, too diverse. The Constitution was still functioning as designed, and the state was not big enough, or intrusive enough, to pick winners and losers consistently. And finally, American culture itself was simply too powerful. Its people believed in the real nobility of entrepreneurialism. And because Americans believed, foreigners who believed it as well flocked to America by the millions. The Constitution created a government along Lockean lines, an institution designed to protect the liberties of the people. It is the product of a social contract that recognizes that natural rights are superior to the government’s rights. The State is a defined term – an all-inclusive institution that has rights and interests superior to the people’s rights. Statists don’t use that term, preferring Progressive, or liberal, or in extreme form, Marxist. The statist views the
state as an active participant in guiding the direction of society. Politically, culturally, and philosophically, the idea of a powerful and intrusive state rests on various versions of the general will and nationalistic arguments. Every dictatorship relies on an argument that follows this basic form, but so do plenty of social democracies. The idea that the state should stamp out income inequality is consistent with state-ism in the tradition of Rousseau but antithetical to the idea of government in the tradition of Locke. Statism in America began with the New Deal which made the State a permanent fixture of American life. Actually, the State began a little earlier, during the Progressive era. Goldberg calls the rebirth of the State the Second American Revolution.
The Progressive Era
The Birth Of The Living Constitution And The Death Of Liberty
In the 20th century a new group of American philosophers emerged claiming the need to re-found America on new principles under the banner of progressivism. Their goal was to discredit and replace the American order designed by the Founders with a new one founded on two assumptions. First, modern government should be guided by science and not politics; and second, an industrialized economy should be supervised and regulated by the modern Administrative State.
America’s Founders were products of the Scottish Enlightenment. The new founders were products of the new German Renaissance, the awakening of German social science. Many American sociologists, philosophers, and economists who created their schools of thought in America had attended German universities. German intellectuals created the “historical school” which taught that all economic facts are relative and evolutionary, contingent on their time and place. These descendants of German romanticism saw the State as an expression of the spirit of the people, and believed the State had not only the right but an obligation to forge a new general will. The vital ingredient of the German intellectual cocktail was Darwinism, injecting a new scientific credibility into the philosophies of nationalism and identity.
Two new trends in America were the “social gospel” and eugenics. One trend pursued social righteousness as a war on capitalism and doctrines of individualism. Walter Rauschenbusch was the leading social gospel preacher. Positivism was invented by Auguste Compte who believed human society could be directed, guided, and ultimately perfected by enlightened experts in a collectivist society. He coined the term sociology. Woodrow Wilson studied under Ely at Johns Hopkins, the first major German style research university in America. Wilson introduced the insidious American cult of “the Living Constitution”.
Contempt for the Founding became the hallmark of the Progressives. John Dewey argued that the Founders mistake was in the belief that their principles would, or should, outlive their time. He fatuously claimed that the Founders lacked historical sense and interest. He thought natural rights and natural liberties were bunk and could only be properly secured through “social control of economic forces in the interest of the great mass of individuals”. He felt the general will was everything and humans were nothing in themselves.
The Progressives were not the first to advocate the creation of extralegal administrators licensed by the general will to wield arbitrary power for the greater good. To quote Jefferson, “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield, and government to gain ground.”
When you commit to the idea that a special class of administrators should be insulated from politics with a license to do good without reference to the law or the voters, you get the Administrative State. The Administrative State is the product of the second American revolution. The Progressives thought they understood how the human machine works so it was appropriate to let the new social engineers revolutionize government the way technological engineers revolutionized industry and public works. They thought the science of administration could elevate man above his nature in the public sphere. The old dream of the perfectibility of man would be achieved by the bureaucrat. Wilson and other Progressives assumed that a secure position in the bureaucracy would relieve the civil servant of his natural self-interest and this would allow him to focus solely on the objective good of society.
When confronted with the seeming chaos of capitalism and democracy, the human mind retreats to its tribal programming. The Progressives took advantage of this tendency to form a popular backlash against capitalism.
During the Progressive Era, industry, engineering, medicine, and science were making incredible breakthroughs and Progressive intellectuals assumed that if science and technology could solve age-old problems in real life, if industrial managers could create amazingly efficient new forms of organization, that experts could do the same thing for politics. Thus social engineering was born. It was assumed that political science could be as scientific as physics or chemistry.
In practical terms the Administrative State was the vast enlargement of the government. It was revolutionary because the new army of regulators worked outside the constitutional framework. Congress is responsible for making policy through legislation. The president is responsible for executing that policy. But with the Administrative State bureaucrats began driving the policymaking process.
The Administrative State had been created by the end of Wilson’s first term – with individual income taxes, big business combines broken up, and the Federal Reserve regulating money, credit and banking. The Federal Trade Commission supervised domestic industry and the Tariff Commission regulated international trade. Armies of regulators inspected factories, intervened in business, and required all manner of licenses to work in various fields.
What was revolutionary was the assumption that the state should take its own counsel on what society needed. Social expediency trumped constitutional fidelity and democratic sovereignty.
During World War I American government became much more intrusive, both economically and politically. John Dewey felt that the war should allow the Progressives to force Americans to give up much of their economic freedom. During the war all of the human tribal impulses were given free reign and the government pursued a policy of war socialism. When the American public grew fed up with domestic authoritarianism after the war, the Progressives, who saw the war as an exemplary use of state planning, looked to foreign countries that continued the struggle for social engineering and scientific management of society: fascist Italy and Soviet Russia. During the depression Roosevelt picked up where Wilson left off, transforming Wilson’s wartime agencies into permanent fixtures of the state. Under Roosevelt American government was permanently transformed into a State.
The Administrative State
The Shadow Government
The way these vested interests sabotage the engine of innovation is with words and ideas. Our civilization, like every civilization, is a conversation. The decline of our civilization is only inevitable if people stop talking about the right things. When we do not teach our children gratitude and appreciation for their inheritance they will remain childish in the expectations of what politics and economics can accomplish. Cultures that do not cherish their best selves die by their own hand, we protect only what we are grateful for.
In the early days of the Trump administration Steve Bannan laid out his three priorities; national security and sovereignty, economic nationalism, and deconstruction of the administrative state. The Administrative State is a vast complex of bureaucrats and regulators and the rules they work by are outside the constitutional order. They make rulings without feedback from voters or elected officials. Their success has been so complete because elected officials have been willing accomplices in this travesty. Congress abdicated its sole responsibility to legislate, the courts have abandoned the obligation to safeguard the separation of powers, and presidents have proved unable or unwilling to curtail the bureaucracy.
Congress no longer makes laws the way the Founders intended. They outsource the heavy lifting to the bureaucracy. Whole agencies are independent of political control. The Administrative State is a shadow government, a State within the State. It is a parallel government, operating outside the light of democratic transparency. Members of the administrative state are not subject to the same system of justice as the rest of us. An administrative law judge (ALJ) is selected by the agency whose cases he will hear and is an employee of that agency. An administrative law judge is exempt from performance reviews and other oversight. There is no jury. In an administrative court you don’t get a lawyer unless you pay for it. Most rules of evidence do not apply. The legal burden of proof placed on the lawyer making the case for the regulatory agency is “a preponderance of the evidence”, not “clear and convincing evidence”.
The Constitution is clear, at the federal level only Congress can legislate. The executive branch executes the law. The unaccountable power of the Administrative State through its regulatory agencies is a throwback to pre-modern forms of State power. Philip Hamburger is the preeminent legal historian on the administrative state. His book, Is Administrative Law Unlawful, explains and demonstrates that the rise of the administrative state is a reactionary effort to restore the lawlessness of arbitrary power banished by the Founders. Arbitrary power means the wielding of power without lawful checks or popular consent.
Administrative law is unconstitutional because: it is not directly answerable to, or derived from, Constitutional, legislative or judicial authority; It is not only extralegal but supra legal. In feudal monarchies the Kings rule was above the common law, creating two systems of justice, one for the people and another for the State. That’s the same arrangement we have under the Administrative State. The third unconstitutional aspect is that “the administrative regime consolidates in one branch of government the powers that the Constitution allocates to different branches.” This violates the Madisonian architecture of our Republic. Madison said in Federalist number 47: “The accumulation of all powers legislative, executive and judiciary in the same hands is the very definition of tyranny.”
Clarence Thomas has chastised the courts for having “overseen and sanctioned the growth of an administrative system that concentrates the power to make laws and the power to enforce them in the hands of a vast and unaccountable administrative apparatus” that is clearly outside the Constitutional structure. Under the administrative state bureaucrats are insulated from the rule of law.
The vast majority of the people who make law through administrative rulings are appointed by other administrators, which is also unconstitutional. Hamburger writes, “that authority… is that of a self-perpetuating bureaucratic class.”
The Regulatory State represents the elevation of a new class aristocracy of those who are above the law.
Without checks on the power of the shadow government, it has predictably grown in power, scope and size. Members of the Administrative State’s bureaucracy are a class and their aims are not altruism but self-interest.
It’s easy to see that the Civil Service reforms, while restricting political patronage, have created a kind of moat around government. The bureaucracy behaves like a guild, rigging the rules for entry and granting lifetime tenure to themselves. Civil Service reform ensured that only the right sort of people would be allowed into the bureaucracy but also secured them against being removed by those who were politically accountable. By protecting the Civil Service from corrupt politicians they also protected them from politicians who want to make the government accountable. So what we’ve ended up with is a “new class” of social engineers. The permanent bureaucracy is a kind of permanent legislative, executive, and judicial branch, immune from political control. Any group of people walled off from accountability can become corrupted.
Government officials are the only citizens who are allowed by law to use violence legally. A minor official in the IRS or the EPA is more powerful in his sphere than the richest businessman in America.
If the bureaucrats are a priesthood, the public sector unions are its Jesuits.
The New Class is economically, ideologically, and psychologically invested in the primacy of government. Its members naturally seek to protect that investment by supporting the party of government, particularly the party of the shadow government. The New Class, the bureaucracy, is all about establishing its power over society.
The argument for a “disinterested” permanent bureaucracy walled off from elected politicians hinges upon the claim that this is the only way to advance the public interest against private interests. This argument is obviously dependent on a very naïve view of human nature.
The “Public Choice” theory of economics has demonstrated that in a system where you have concentrated benefits and dispersed costs, a small number of agents with a lot to gain, can normally overpower the interests of the majority. Those who depend on the “rents” will fight with a passion to keep them. Over time, the special interests proliferate. The more they proliferate, the more the government sector grows, becoming a kind of tragedy of the commons, fostering an explosion of lobbying. The more government becomes dedicated to serving special interests, the more its ability to deal with more important challenges is handicapped.
The real corruption is when the regulator becomes so parasitically connected to what he regulates that he cannot break the connection. This is “regulatory capture”.
The perniciousness of occupational licensing is a clear example of guild economics. The astronomical cost of New York taxi medallions was due to yellow cabs being granted a monopoly by government. Uber and Lyft challenged the guild and for the first time taxi cab medallions’ value plummeted. This is a prime example of guild economics in a conspiracy against the public, and of how innovation can be such a net benefit for society. This example demonstrates how quickly a parasitic bureaucracy – the New York City Taxi Commission – can become a host to a parasitic industry.
The most powerful constituency lobbying for minimum wage hikes is the most obvious modern guild: labor unions.
As with any other institution, a labor union’s role goes from positive to pernicious once it enlists the state to achieve its ends. When that happens, unions become guilds. Guild Economics is a sign of entropy and decay for the body politic. Regulations of the financial industry have protected the biggest banks, while drowning small community banks in unaffordable compliance costs.
“Class,” says Daniel Bell, “denotes a system that has institutionalized the ground rules for acquiring, holding, and transferring differential power and its attendant privileges.” James Burnham said, “it is a historical law that all social and economic groups strive to improve their relative position with respect to power and privilege in society.”
Complexity is the subsidy. The more complex government makes society, the more it rewards those with the resources to deal with that complexity, and the more it punishes those who do not.
David Brooks said that the children of the affluent are learning a profound and sophisticated ingratitude toward the country they grew up in. The Administrative State is deeply invested in this project. The rot is systemic. The shadow government of the New Class has fortified itself against democratic accountability and is sawing off the ladder to success beneath it.
Nationalism, Populism, And Identity Politics
In most places, and for most of human history, it’s been natural to treat individuals as members of the tribe. In America, we are supposed to judge people by their character but this is breaking down in three ways. We are now taught that government should give special preference to some groups, and that we should judge people based upon their group, and that there is no escaping from our group identity.
Multiculturalism and identity politics ideologies are full of contradictions and inconsistencies, but even so our culture is obsessed with race, gender, and ethnic essentialness. The tribalism of identity politics is poisonous to the American miracle, and American campuses and our left-wing media are fanning the flames.
For more than a generation the best principles of the West have been under assault. Intellectuals are recasting the virtues of our system and making them vices. Merit, the essence of the Founders ideal of an anti-aristocratic society, is now code for racism.
Virtually every identity politics campaign is about power. Whatever accrues to the benefit of the defined group advances “social justice”.
The new identity ideologues claim that if there were no discrimination women and minorities would be perfectly represented in every field proportionate to their numbers in the general population because there are no substantive differences between these groups. But they insist that women and minorities bring a special viewpoint and unique experiences that companies need to thrive, i.e. valuable because different. This is contradictory and obviously ridiculous except for those who make a living from exploiting these disparities in proportional hiring. The aim is power, not policy. The proposed remedy of the identity ideologues is always to bend the rules by discarding objective standards in favor of selective ones that arbitrarily designate some group to be entitled to special treatment – the logic of the State as an instrument of divine justice. In American colleges and universities tenured radicals seek to overturn the status of merit and colorblindness as ideals.
It would be easy to dismiss the identity politics of race, gender, and ethnicity as reinventions of the sort of coalitional squabbles that have always defined American politics – and all politics, forever. But racial and gender identity have become converted into a permanent and immutable ideology that seeks to overthrow white male privilege. Argument grounded in reason is itself now a tool of oppression. “Social justice” has gelled into a kind of tribal ideology.
The effort to delegitimize classical liberal standards manifests itself every day on college campuses. This campus effort to enthrone progressive ideals derives from a desire for power – professors specializing in the study of race and gender, diversity consultants, administrators, Democrats and various outside activist groups all have a vested interest in heightening racial and sexual grievances because they make a living out of it.
But the more important dynamic than careerism and profit is the one that makes this such an appealing ideology, the desire to have authority over others, to control the terms of the debate, and to establish yourself as the new authority on what is, or is not, legitimate. Every society since the agricultural revolution has created a priestly class that defines the scope of right thinking and right action. In modern society this new clerisy is to be found among the self-anointed class of academics, activists, writers etc. who claim a monopoly on political virtue. They get to decide on who is to be anathematized or excommunicated for wrong thinking, and college campuses serve as their most formidable monasteries and citadels.
Free speech is a threat to ideological hegemony. Identity politics has always been about the politics and psychology of power. By insisting that some questions cannot be asked, some ideas not entertained, the new clerisy is wielding power. The idea of creating “safe spaces” is an effort to control certain battle spaces in the culture war. The clerisy changes the rules of what is permissible to say like Mao’s Red Guard.
Identity politics wins, not by argument, but by exploiting the inherent decency of the American people, and especially of liberal college professors afraid of being called racist. The essence of serious thinking is the ability to make meaningful distinctions.
In 2015 Yale offered 26 courses in African-American studies, 64 courses in “ethnicity, race and migration,” and 41 courses in “women’s, gender, and sexuality studies”, two courses on the Constitution and one professor teaching on the Founding era. On the Yale campus they were nearly 80 organizations dedicated to specific identity groups. The same pattern holds at most elite colleges. The lesson is that appeasing identity politics demands, like all appeasement, leads to more and more demands.
The clerisy doesn’t own anything other than its monopoly over acceptable words, which is one of the reasons they are constantly changing acceptable vocabulary. The diversity police have gone from a requirement for tolerance to a requirement for celebration of characteristics and behavior that were formally stigmatized – it is a form of psychological bullying which says, “You must abandon your convictions and agree with mine.”
In our colleges and universities today there are whole academic departments dedicated to “Whiteness Studies” which (in contrast to “Black Studies” or “Hispanic Studies” or “Women’s Studies”, all dedicated to building up an identity, celebrating their uniqueness, and cultivating a sense of group solidarity) are dedicated to cataloging the illegitimacy and the evil of whiteness. The general idea of all this is to overthrow the ideals that made this country so successful in the first place. They argue that the ideals themselves are illegitimate.
The tragedy is that liberalism – in the classic Enlightenment sense – is the only system ever created to help people break out of the oppression of identity politics. For thousands of years nearly every society divided people into permanent categories of caste, class, peasant and noble, and male and female. The Lockean principle of treating every human being as equal in the eyes of God and government broke the chains of tyranny more profoundly and lastingly than any other idea.
Many of our universities now elevate the principle of diversity above that of merit, and they use a very narrow definition of diversity. Intellectual, ideological, and religious diversity take a backseat to racial diversity.
As an example of how the New Class intellectuals use the power of words to change and undermine institutions, consider how they have arrogated to themselves the arbitrary power to decide what counts as “good” diversity and to decide what constitutes acceptable language. When agents of the State and other officials have unilateral authority to change the ideals based on their own political, aesthetic, or cultural preferences, they are substituting their own arbitrary power (their priestcraft) for objective standards. (This so clearly explains the motive of Progressives in arguing for a “Living Constitution” flexible enough to bend with the changing cultural trends that they are responsible for promoting.)
The breakdown in bourgeois values has led to much of the social discord and dysfunction of contemporary society and the New Class of intellectuals have been the most effective promoters of this breakdown.
The key to a thriving civil society is a multiplicity of institutions where diverse groups of people can find a home. These mediating institutions (associations) that create and enrich the space between the individual and the state are critical to the health of society, as is religion.
A whole class of activists has made a career out of exaggerating the nature of the problems of the disadvantaged so as to justify their own status and power. Social justice has become an industry unto itself. Progressivism now lacks a limiting principle for governmental and social action. There are always more injustices to be identified – or imagined – and then rectified. For the most ardent progressive there is no anxiety, or sadness, or fear that cannot be cured by political action.
Social justice warriors do not seek to simply destroy existing traditional Western culture; they seek to create a new culture, a “new politics of meaning.”
Whenever you try to replace well-established cultural norms and traditions with an abstract new system, you do not open the door to utopia; you open the door to human nature’s darker impulses.
Any institution that’s been around for a long time has learned how to cope with crises. Rooted institutions provide us with important emotional, psychological, and spiritual shelter. When you destroy existing cultural habits, you do not convert people who live in them to your worldview, you radicalize them.
The creative destruction of capitalism is a big part of the problem because it’s constantly sweeping away traditional arrangements and institutions.
“Here lies the eternal tension inherent in Enlightenment based societies. The extra rational institutions of family, faith, and community, in all their forms, are in constant battle with the force of change and the sovereignty of the individual. Because capitalism is unnatural and government (broadly understood) is natural, we constantly look to the State to fix the very real problems and anxieties that inevitably emerge from capitalistic creative destruction.”
Any attempt by the State to suppress innovation and to plan the economy inevitably leads to restrictions on our liberties. Economic liberty is ultimately inseparable from liberty.
Romanticism is often described as a rebellion against reason, or as the primacy of emotions and feeling. Romanticism arose as a part of the general reaction against the rationalism of the 18th century. After the Enlightenment, priority was increasingly given to reason in law, public arguments, and most institutions, and the romantic movement was a reaction to this.
Neuroscientists and psychologists have given us copious documentation of the ways the human mind acts irrationally. The evolutionary cognitive tools we developed are far more varied and complicated than simply rational. Groups that have a coherent vision of group meaning – religious, political, social, etc. – will be more successful at cooperating, and cooperation is the core evolutionary adaptation of humanity. The Enlightenment didn’t erase any of this complex rational/emotional equipment from our brains.
The idea that the world is off balance, fake, fraudulent, unnatural, has been the one of the dominant themes of art since the Enlightenment. It is what motivated the romantics to fight back against what they saw as the mechanization of natural life.
The film, Dead Poets Society, has had a profound influence on how people view education, and particularly on how educators view themselves. The hero, Mr. Keating, had something to teach the fogies about how to make education interesting and entertaining. But what he was not doing was teaching the boys to think for themselves. He was teaching them to embrace the romantic imperative of finding truth – within themselves. He was not teaching them to think for themselves; he was teaching them not to think at all. Films like this not only reflect our culture but also shape it, giving it voice and validation.
This vampire political or economic order sucking the life force out of humanity is usually described as left wing, but the Southern Agrarian poets and writers were conservative and their critiques of capitalism, democracy, and mass culture were also romantic. The Nazis were drenched in romanticism and the myths of their pre-Christian Teutonic forefathers.
The allure of tribal justice movies and modern myths succeeds through our “willing suspension of disbelief.” Wordsworth made the real seem supernatural. Combine these two approaches (making the supernatural seem real and making the natural seem supernatural) and you get not only pantheism but the whole gamut of romantic art. The willing suspension of disbelief is not willed, it is primal, hardwired.
Our moral expectations in the world of art differ from our expectations in the real world around us. We work by one set of largely artificial rules: the rules of civilization. But beneath the person of manners, custom, and law resides a different being. Beneath the layers of outward civilization lurks a more primal self, who finds the world around us complicated and artificial. Our primal self isn’t a noble savage, but he feels like a more authentic person than the one who works hard and plays by the rules of modern society.
The moral universe of cinema sometimes mirrors the real world, but often the actors play roles more consistent with the moral universe of our inner savage. In novels, movies, TV, rap music, video games, and almost every other realm of our shared culture, the moral language of the narrative is in an almost entirely different dialect from the moral language of the larger society.
Moral rules and morays form the bedrock of virtually every halfway decent civilization. Yet in nearly every action movie we cheer people who violate these rules.
When we suspend disbelief, we also suspend adherence to the conventions and legalisms of the outside world. Instead, we use the more primitive parts of our brains, which understood right and wrong as questions of “us” and “them.” Our myths are still with us in the movies and they appeal to our sense of tribal justice. We enter the movie a citizen, but the moment the lights go out we become denizens of the spiritual jungle where our morality reverts to the tribal.
The Family’s Losing War Against Barbarism
Institutions play a vital role in a pluralistic society. Institutions are rules and customs for how groups of people self-organize and work together outside the state. These institutions – the formal and informal organizations, customs, and rules that mediate the space between the individual and the state are the civil society.
The most important mediating institution in any society is the family, and good families are the most important element in the success of a society, while dysfunctional families are the primary cause of societal decline. The family is the institution that converts us from natural barbarians into decent citizens and is the keystone of civil society. The family teaches a scheme of values, an attitude toward life and civilization.
Monogamy is the driver of mankind’s success as a species. Marriage is an artificial institution and a cultural adaptation. Societies where monogamy is the norm tend to be much more economically productive, politically democratic, socially stable, and friendly to women’s rights.
Men in monogamous societies are more economically productive because each man is a stakeholder in his own family. It is no accident that monogamy is the norm in every economically advanced democratic society. We made traditional marriage normal through centuries of civilizational trial and error demonstrating that it was the best practice for society, and we heaped layers of law, tradition, and custom on top of the institution to protect it.
When the mainline Protestant churches caved in to trendy popular culture they downgraded the status of marriage. In Christianity, marriage always had strong elements of duty, obligation, and sacrifice. Marriage was the only legitimate model for having children. The attitude was that one must work for the marriage. The new attitude is that the marriage had better work for me. In 1962 half of American women agreed the marriage should stay together when there were children in the family even if the parents didn’t get along, but by 1977 only one in five agreed. Half the children born to married parents in the 1970s saw their parents part, compared to only about 11% of those born in the 1950s.
Where the culture goes, so goes the state, and no-fault divorce law gradually became common, which accelerated the cultural trend. When Johnson’s Great Society started subsidizing women who had children out of wedlock and made it a broad entitlement for single mothers, the spread of social pathology accelerated. The AFDC program was miserably designed. One study by the Urban Institute showed that a single mother working at minimum wage would lose about $8000 in cash and non-cash benefits if she married a man making minimum wage.
The hypocrisy of elites in refusing to admit the importance of marriage and the damage to our culture, and the individuals affected, from rampant divorce and out of wedlock childbearing, not only has had tragic results, but is weird because all the research overwhelmingly shows a vast discrepancy in the quality of future life between children raised by a nuclear family and those who are not.
Capitalism and liberal democracy are unnatural. The market system depends on bourgeois values, principles and ideas that must be passed on, and institutions, not government, are the chief mechanisms for doing so. Family is the first line of defense against the barbarian invasion. When the family fails, it becomes harder to produce good citizens dedicated to the principles and habits that created the Miracle of the market economy and liberal democracy in the first place.
The Trumpian Era
The Perils Of Populism
It was our ability to communicate concepts that sent us skyrocketing up the food chain. The Glorious Revolution and the American Revolution represented the ascendance of a new bourgeois worldview that elevated liberty, commerce, innovation, hard work, and the autonomy of family and individual alike. The bourgeoisie asserted their rights and those rights steadily became more universal. Dictators and totalitarians had to claim the mantle of democracy.
In the West, the left and right argue about how and where to draw the line between social welfare and economic liberty, but the rest of the conversation boils down to which party is more committed to democracy, free speech, and personal liberty. Each side thought they were on the side of liberty and argued that they were its champions.
In the last two decades Western elites have become increasingly hostile to democracy, free speech, and capitalism. One reason is the widespread belief that authoritarian societies develop faster and better than democratic and free market ones. There’s just something deeply seductive about the idea of society being run by a strong father figure or some wise council of experts. This is particularly true among the class of people who believe they should be on just such a council. Countless intellectuals in the 1920s and 30s were even enamored with fascist and communist regimes in Europe, and intellectuals are attracted in droves to similar illusions of political philosophy today.
William Easterly, one of the most brilliant development economics scholars, documents how this cult of authoritarianism thrives among the global caste of development experts and the journalists who rely on them. Some of the world’s fastest-growing economies over the last 50 years have been autocracies, but the reason they grew was because they adopted free market mechanisms, improved property rights, weeded out corruption, adopted free trade policies and copied more advanced countries technologies and business practices.
When the way people think and talk changes, the shape of our politics will change too. Our colleges and universities are leading the charge in degrading the way we talk about the values that uphold civilization. There is growing animosity, led by our professors and intellectuals, to upholding and celebrating the values and behavior that lead to a responsible and worthwhile life.
Populism is fueled by resentment and populist movements tend to be coalitions of economic losers. Populism has no limiting principle save the need to feed off and stoke resentment.
Demagoguery is appealing to the gut instincts of the mob, of the crowd – an ancient form of rhetoric that later came to mean playing on the passions of the public to foment immediate and unthinking action, or hatred toward the system. It is grounded in human instinct and like romanticism elevates the importance of emotion and feelings above reason and fact. In primitive societies the ability to see the world in black-and-white was a competitive advantage. A talent for stirring up passion is a source of strength because unity is the fruit of passion. So demagoguery is a natural human trait. Containing, channeling, and dispelling dangerous popular passions is what civilizations do. One of the Constitution’s chief functions is to blunt and divert the power of demagogues and the masses that listen to them.
Things Fall Apart
For most of human prehistory the tribe or band was the only human institution. The agricultural revolution and the division of labor created space for multiple institutions but these grew very slowly: the family, the local community, the church, a relative handful of occupations, usually controlled by guilds, and the state and the military. With the Industrial Revolution there was an almost miraculous explosion of institutions and a staggering burst of creative genius and human prosperity.
Creating a nurturing environment for mediating institutions is the greatest feat of social engineering in human history. But it wasn’t done from the top down, it evolved.
The state cannot build civil society, it can only protect it. Civil society has a different currency from both the market economy and the state. Voluntary associations operate on the economy of community, charity and reciprocity. When the State takes over the functions being performed by civil society, it is toxic. The government can do a lot but it can’t love you.
Some politicians attempt to justify welfare programs by saying the country is like a family. This is a dangerous analogy, generosity is different from an entitlement. The government can’t play the role of the family. Family assistance brings with it complex forms of advice, guidance, reciprocity, guilt, expectations, etc..
When welfare is received not as charity but as an entitlement you get all sorts of problems. European countries that have heavy doses of welfare have seen their civil societies atrophy. Government crowds out private charities and people become much less generous because they feel the government is taking care of the need.
Earned success gives the sense of personal satisfaction that comes from hard work and achievement. What generates lasting happiness is the conviction that your labors are valued, that you made a meaningful contribution, that you are needed. Many of the institutions of civil society give the opportunity for this type of earned success. The American system is designed to let people choose their own path to earned success – the “individual pursuit of happiness.” The more mediating institutions we have, the more paths to earned success.
Learned helplessness is what you get when the incentives for work and rewards for merit get out of whack. Alienation is quite prevalent in State run economies and particularly in communist countries. Statist systems do not recognize the right to exit.
Every ideological flavor of statist has argued that the State must be given the power to cure the alienation of the market and act like a loving parent caring for children. It doesn’t work, but the more people believe it does, the more they turn their backs on the only thing that does.
American liberals are three times more likely to want the government to do more to reduce income inequality. Conservatives, who believe that government should not tackle income inequality, give four times as much money to charity as liberals. When we outsource compassion to the government we free ourselves up to think only about ourselves. Liberals seem blind to the costs of their government financed compassion.
The Progressive philosophy of what the government should do was outlined in the video, The Life Of Julia, produced as a campaign ad for the Obama campaign. It described all the methods of assistance the government would provide to a fictional woman throughout her life. It described a cradle-to-grave nanny State. In the video Julia had no family, except for one child, no parents, no husband, no loved ones. There was no church, no voluntary association of any kind. The State took the place of family, friends, community, and religion. The desire to be part of a family is one of the most deeply felt emotional instincts humans have. The Life Of Julia gave a vision of having the State step in and fill the holes in your soul. This story – that the State can be your family and provide you with a sense of community – is incredibly powerful and popular.
When civil society is healthy most people do not look to Washington for the answers to their problems. But when the family and civil society are depleted or dysfunctional we don’t lose our desire to belong to something or our need for help when misfortune befalls us. And there is the State offering to fill the need where other institutions have failed. Barack Obama’s political philosophy was consistent with this slogan, “we’re the ones you been waiting for” and was a brilliant and creepy new age form of populism.
In America patriotism is defined by adherence to a set of principles and ideals that is higher than mere nationalism. Nationalism is concerned with the collective will – a cult of unity. In America, patriotism never loses sight of the fact that the fundamental unit of our constitutional order is not the group but the individual. To the American patriot the hero is the man who, with the law on his side, stands up to the crowd. Nationalism is a pre-rational, emotional, or ultimately tribal commitment to one’s home country. A little of it is both necessary and healthy, but too much is poisonous. Nationalism is not an ideology but a passion. The Founders recognized that political passion is dangerous which is why they set up a system designed to keep it in check. Nationalism is the medium by which passions like racial essentialism, tribal superiority, the elevation of passion and myth, grow. Nationalism works on the assumption that the search for meaning and spiritual redemption is a collective enterprise. Nationalism without qualifiers has no internal checks, no limiting principles to protect against giving in to collective passion. Nationalism taken to its logical extreme must become statism or some form of socialism. Everywhere nationalism has free reign the market becomes some kind of socialism.
High levels of skills-based immigration are economically desirable but there are cultural and psychological costs of immigration. Social cohesion, civic and institutional health, and community trust are all vulnerable to high levels of immigration. There is an undeniable correlation between increased diversity and breakdowns in community. People who live in diverse communities tend to distrust their neighbors. In ethnically or culturally homogeneous communities there’s more social trust and more social capital. A shared culture builds trust, which is essential to democracy and economic growth.
Ethnic homogeneity and a strong cultural consensus make social democracy much easier to pull off. In 1960 the American foreign-born population overwhelmingly consisted of immigrants from Europe and Canada and only 9.5 % were from Mexico and Central America. In 2014, 28% came from Mexico and another 24% from other Latin American countries. Almost 25% of America’s school-age population speaks a foreign language other than English at home. Before the 1960s America at the state, local, and federal levels was determined to turn immigrants into Americans. And the schools, churches, and popular culture had both the tools and the will to encourage assimilation. Today, all the will is on the other side. There is a large aggressive educational and political lobby that works against assimilation and strives to create ever more incentives for immigrants to maintain their minority identity.
The erosion of civil society has caused millions of Americans to flock to partisan politics as a source of tribal meaning. Political parties in America were not always particularly ideological. Starting in the 1960s and intensifying with nearly every passing year, the parties have become, not only more ideological, but tribal.
As other sources of meaning wither, and we think of ourselves as residents of the national community rather than the local ones, the stakes of politics inevitably increase, psychologically as well as in policy.
Bias is endemic to all journalism but is worse than ever now particularly on the Internet. The national conversation has become a noxious smog of feelings and desired, yet fake, facts.
Mass immigration erodes mediating institutions, and the decline of authentic communities fuels the migration to “virtual communities” online where resentments are reinforced. The key recruitment tool for any highly emotional, ideologically extreme group, cult etc. is always the same: the promise of meaning and belonging. Humans are hardwired to want to belong to, be part of, a cause larger than themselves. Young people with scant social capital are particularly susceptible to such appeals because they have few alternative sources of meaning and belonging. Like Obama, Clinton’s answer is to give the State more power in an effort to satisfy a longing for meaning. This approach only fuels the problem, because it makes the State the only source of meaning. The only solution to breaking the cycle is to make the State less important and allow civil society to grow its institutions back to health.
“The assumption that somehow there exists some predetermined inevitable trajectory, the result of uncontrollable external forces, is wrong. Nothing is inevitable. Nothing is written. For America today, decline is not a condition. Decline is a choice.” – Charles Krauthammer, 2009
Whether you believe in God or not, you cannot discount the importance of God as a human innovation. Goldberg is speaking of God as a single omniscient being looking at us all. Prior to the God of the Jews, gods were more like prickly servants than masters. Humans picked their deities to support their passions. The Hebrew God reversed the
division of labor, demanding that the people work for Him, not the other way around. The Hebrew God recognized the moral sanctity of the individual Jew. The Christian God universalized that moral sanctity. From the beginning Christianity recognized that every person was due a certain measure of justice, and each person was obliged to respect others as children of God. The Golden Rule is the seed from which grew the concept of the individual. Christianity introduced the idea that we are born into a state of natural equality. Of course the conquering of Europe by Christianity did not erase the natural tendency of elites to lock in their advantages. Christianity’s emphasis on human dignity and equality did not destroy monarchy, aristocracy, serfdom, or slavery for many centuries, but the fuse was lit.
Christianity performed another vital service. It created the idea of the secular, and divided the world between the City Of Man and the City Of God (St. Augustine). These cities are entirely metaphorical, describing states of mind. Those who live in the City Of God devote themselves to love of God. Those who live in the City Of Man devote themselves to their self-interests. Augustine knew that the fundamental cleavage between those of faith and those without would always exist in human societies, and that the secular and the faithful had to live among each other and work to create political systems that protected their common interests. For Augustine, society was divided, not between nobles and peasants, but between believer and nonbeliever. The ultimate task of identifying who was who was left to God, not man.
Martin Luther liberated the individual conscience from the monopoly of the Catholic Church and forced the state, ultimately, to expand the borders of liberty and tolerance.
The West’s advance was the product of a series of creative tensions: between balancing the rights of the individual and the powers of the state; between faith and reason; between religion and government; etc.
There are also the creative tensions inside the human heart; between desire and responsibility; between self-expression and self-discipline; between seeking the limelight and contributing to the community; and between faith and reason.
But there was one thing that informed all of these passions and ideas: the idea that God was watching – the greatest check on the natural human desire to give in to your feelings. The notion that God is watching is probably the most powerful civilizing force in all of human history. The very notion of what constitutes good character comes from countless generations of people trying to figure out how they should behave when only God knew what they were doing. This is the most important tension: between our base, instinctual desires and what God expects of us. This tension created space for reason, by trying to puzzle out the will of God, to become a crucial moral tool in our lives and breach the divides between all people by appealing to conscience.
In the West the Miracle happened for the first and only time in human history and it was God, as defined by organized Christianity and informed by Judaism, who shaped the understanding of what right and proper behavior was. Religion provides a framework for how people approach the world, for how they prioritize wants and desires, for how they structure their lives. It is the primary source of ideas about how you should live. God had a magnetic pull on the otherwise inner directed compass of human nature, pointing us towards something better
God’s absence creates an opening for all manner of ideas to flood in because of mankind’s strong religious instinct. The decline of religion explains all manner of totalitarian efforts to create earthly utopia by replacing religion with a scientific religion that will usher in a new heaven on earth.
The Miracle was built on the bourgeois idea that everyone has the right to pursue happiness, implying it would take effort and work. Earned success is the secret to meaningful happiness. The government can improve your net worth with a check, but it cannot improve your self-worth.
Believing that God is watching you creates one kind of society. Believing that life is to be lived to indulge in feelings and entertainment creates another kind.
In a democracy ignorance of government is dangerous, particularly with the national obsession of encouraging people to vote. In 2017 only one in four Americans could name all three branches of government, a huge recent decline. Democracy is supposed to rely on an informed electorate. Voting should be the culmination of one’s civic engagement, not the gateway to it. In 1961, John Courtney Murray said the real enemy within the gates is not the Communists but the idiot (idiot in the classical Greek usage – the individual ignorant of the public philosophy and the skills that underlie the life of the civilized society.)
Modern American college students seem ignorant of the basic questions about the civilization they will be inheriting – idiots in the original Greek sense. They are the children of the New Class, so ignorant of their own civilization that they have no response to those who insist it is not worth defending. The liberal arts, as originally conceived, were intended to be an antidote to this form of idiocy by equipping students with the arguments and knowledge necessary to protect and defend liberty. Instead the primacy of feeling – that hallmark of romanticism – has become a live idea about how we should organize our lives.
“It is ideas which rule the world, because it is ideas that define the way reality is perceived; and, in the absence of religion, it is out of culture – pictures, poems, songs, philosophy – that these ideas are born.” – Irving Kristol
Without religion, popular culture, with its emphasis on hedonism and feeling, is the primary public conveyor of meaning in our lives, and is usually unattached from (and often hostile to) higher understandings of meaning, morality, or religion. Much of classical music, painting, and architecture was dedicated to the greater glory of God.
All drama and virtually all entertainment is about human feelings. The characters may use reason but reason is always subservient to their emotional motivations. The difference now is that our feelings have become an end in themselves. The gut has defeated the mind. Populism is not an ideology. It is a feeling.
It was inevitable when we stopped looking up to God for meaning and started looking down into ourselves that we would look to find fulfillment, belonging, and meaning in tribes and crowds. The animating spirit of populism is the spirit of the crowd. Partisans of the left love their crowds. Finding succor and strength in numbers is tribal passion. Giving into the passion of the crowd is inherently corrupting because it seeks no higher authority and says you have righteous entitlement to act on your feelings. It takes moral leadership to keep a crowd from becoming a mob and moral leadership can only come from reminding the crowd that their unity is a means, not an end.
A society submerged in feelings and entertainment is not sustainable. There must be a reasonable connection between the cerebral man and the visceral man. Reason and passion must merge to form decency, civility, probity, and honor, rightly understood. Self-indulgence and self-worship strip men of the ability to use their reason to guide their passions. The softer despotism of Huxley’s imagined future lifestyle invites its own collapse. This challenge faces every generation and every heart. The siren call of glory, greatness, national solidarity, or tribal redemption becomes ever more seductive, at first with alienated individuals but ultimately with groups and even nations. Rhetoric yields its own reality, because it transmits ideas, and ideas still rule the world. The only solution to our woes is for the West to re-embrace the core ideas that made the Miracle possible.
The desire to be entertained has rewired much of our civilization because it has rewired our minds. Entertainment is fundamentally romantic and tribal; it jumps over arguments, elevates passion, and lionizes heroes.
Modern American conservatism was a bundle of ideological commitments: limited government, natural rights, the importance of traditional values, patriotism, gratitude, etc., but underneath are two bedrock assumptions upon which all of these commitments stand: the belief that ideas matter and that character matters. This is our debt to the Enlightenment: that through reason and argument we can identify good ideas and bad. Modern American conservatism arose from arguments made necessary by the threat of communism: arguments for Western civilization, the free market, the Constitution, property rights, and all of the underlying concepts that led to the Miracle.
The indispensable ingredient for protecting our form of government from decline is gratitude. Gratitude is impossible without memory and we need to consistently remind ourselves why we should give thanks for the principles that underlie the greatness of our government. We must fight to hand off this civilization to the next generation and to equip that generation to carry on the fight, and so on, forever.
We cannot get rid of human nature and humanity’s natural tribal tendencies. But we know that, under the right circumstances, our tribal nature can be grafted to a commitment to liberty, individualism, property rights, innovation etc. It happened in England, accidentally but organically. It happened in America by choice. America talked itself into existence. The Founders argued the Constitution out of the ether and they believed it could work so long as people of good character fended off the inevitable entropy of human nature. They wrote it down and made it hard to change. The only thing that gives it lasting power is our commitment to it.
Parents must cultivate their barbarian children into citizens, and the rest of us must endeavor to keep the principles of our civilization alive by showing our gratitude for it. Give up fighting for our civilization, give up holding human nature at bay, abandon our principles for any reason – selfishness, sloth, forgetfulness, ambition, ingratitude, whatever – and you choose to give in to decay.
Decline is a choice. Principles, like gods, die when no one believes in them anymore.
This book rests on a few core arguments. They are:
We are living in an unnaturally prosperous time. Our prosperity is not merely material, but political and philosophical. We live in a miraculous time, by historical standards, where every human born is recognized by law and culture as a sovereign individual with unalienable rights. This is not normal in humanity’s natural environment. The West stumbled into this miracle without intending it and can stumble out of it.
Human nature is fundamentally unchanging. If we do not account for and channel human nature, it will overpower and corrupt the institutions that make prosperity possible.
The fact of our historically unique prosperity is demeaned most vehemently by those who believe that material conditions represent the heart of political morality. The very essence of socialism is the dogmatic conviction that the virtue of society is determined almost entirely by how fairly wealth and resources are distributed.
Irving Kristol said, “When we lack the will to see things as they really are, there is nothing so mystifying as the obvious.”, and Confucius, “If language cannot be in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.”
When you amputate historical memory, you end up taking the present for granted. Westerners act is if the prosperity today is simply natural and, as result, have a cavalier attitude toward the ideas and institutions that make our prosperity possible. Recognizing our good fortune is the first step in securing it for posterity.
The Western world’s economy from A.D. 1 to A.D. 1820 grew about 6% per century. Economic growth took off in the 1700s, starting in England, and has been accelerating ever since. There has been approximately a 37 fold increase in world per capita income from 1750 to now. The number of the world’s people considered poor has decreased both relatively and absolutely – an incredible feat, given the massive increases in population.
As recently as 1970, almost 27% of the people worldwide lived in absolute poverty, but only a little more than 5% did as of 2006. The spread of market forces around the globe has been the chief driver of the largest eradication of poverty in human history. Between 1990 and 2010, the percentage of population in developing countries living in poverty fell from 43 to 21%, a reduction of almost 1 billion people.
One of the great cleavages between left and right is a disagreement over the definition of freedom. The left tends to define freedom in material terms, the right in political ones. The left believes in positive liberty, that the State must provide or guarantee healthcare, income, etc. The right prefers negative liberty – freedom from government interference. Economic growth and technological innovation do more to provide positive liberty than any government possibly could, and meaningful, valued work, is essential to human happiness.
People invented and discovered things long before any capitalist system arose, but science and technology were made subservient to politics and religion prior to the Lockean revolution. Innovation was a threat to the established order so was treated with hostility by both political and religious establishments. The freedom of the market economy is really the freedom to innovate, to find efficiencies or invent new ones that make the old ones obsolete. Capitalism is actually the most liberating force in human history. The market can maximize efficiency in ways impossible to central planners. Free-market societies are far better stewards of the environment than command economies and capitalism provides the means to remedy the damage. The free market has been responsible for the steady reduction of death from disease through the invention of countless drugs and medical techniques. We are more literate and more educated than ever before. Thanks to capitalism, education and literacy are no longer the privilege of the elite but increasingly common to all. The unprecedented spread of technology is simply astounding. The advance of computing power is one of the most illuminating examples. The market introduces luxuries for the wealthy, and the wealthy subsidize innovations that turn luxuries into necessities. It is the greatest triumph of alchemy in all of human experience, and the response from many in every generation is ingratitude and entitlement.
Paternalism is the logic behind the rule of every Caesar, king, sultan, commissar, emperor. Paternalism did not create the Miracle. Human ingenuity unleashed by the miracle of liberty, chiefly economic liberty – which yields political liberty – made this possible. Yet, in the modern era, every generation takes the Miracle for granted.
The free market system depends on values, ideas, and institutions outside of the realm of economics to function. It is not merely the best antipoverty program ever conceived; it is the only antipoverty system ever invented. Poverty is the natural human condition and existed for over 99% of human life on earth. Socialism is the economics of the tribe. We were evolved as a cooperative, resource sharing species which is why socialism keeps coming back. Capitalism, individual liberty, and free speech are not natural, so liberal democratic capitalism is at war with human nature in every generation.
Capitalism is the greatest peaceful cooperative endeavor for human enrichment ever created – by orders of magnitude. The catch? It doesn’t feel like it. It doesn’t feel cooperative. It doesn’t even feel peaceful. It is full of uncertainty and tumult.
Capitalism cannot provide meaning, spirituality, or sense of belonging. It is an economic system that is fantastic at providing growth and prosperity. The problem is that we want more than what capitalism can provide. We want meaning. Capitalism can’t fill the holes in our souls.
Meaning comes from family, friends, faith, community, and countless little platoons of civil society. When these institutions fail, capitalism alone can’t restore them. So human nature starts making demands of the political and economic systems that neither can possibly fulfill. Liberty, economic and political, is recast as the source of our problems. Having lost faith in other realms, we lose faith in the Miracle itself, and cast about for what feels more natural: tribalism, nationalism, or socialism in one form or another.
We spend more time talking about consumer confidence than about civilizational confidence and civilizational confidence is vastly more important. Western civilization created the miracle. When we lose our confidence and pride in what it has accomplished we are committing a suicidal act on a civilizational scale.
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Copyright @ 2018 by Jonah Goldberg
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