Good News from the Federal Government

According to The Wall Street Journal,

Congress has struck a tentative bipartisan agreement that would authorize 12 weeks of paid parental leave for all federal workers, in a potentially historic deal negotiated with the White House.

Draft language for a must-pass annual defense policy bill includes a provision that would allow 2.1 million civilians who work for the U.S. government across the country to take paid leave to care for a new baby after birth, adoption or the initiation of foster care, according to multiple people familiar with the deal.

Under current law, military service members can take up to 12 weeks of paid leave to care for a new child, while civilian federal employees get 12 weeks leave without pay. Civilian employees are paid during that 12-week period by using accrued annual or sick leave.

The change, if adopted, will mean that whenever a male federal worker qualifies for the benefit, he will almost always claim it. Currently, he is discouraged from taking time off because he must use annual leave or sick leave.

The good news is that there will be a lot fewer civilian federal workers on the job, which means that the federal bureaucracy will grind a bit more slowly when it does the things that it does to screw up the economy.

Come to think of it, all civilian federal workers should be given paid annual leave of 250 days (i.e., 50 weeks). That amount of paid leave, plus the two weeks’ worth of paid federal holidays, would allow the entire civilian federal work force to loaf full-time — but not at the office, where just going through the motions is damaging to the economy.

An even better idea is to abolish most of the civilian federal workforce and spend the money on defense. That would make us a lot better off, and more secure into the bargain.

Can Libertarianism and Conservatism Be Reconciled? A Footnote

Near the end of Sir Roger Scruton’s On Human Nature, I came upon a discussion that bears directly on my post, “Can Libertarianism and Conservatism Be Reconciled?“. Scruton’s point is essential and merits a spotlight. Further, it applies not only to libertarianism (i.e., classical liberalism) but also to its offshoot — modern “liberalism” — neither of which, as rationalistic philosophies, bear any resemblance to conservatism, properly understood.

Here is the essential difference between conservatism and the varieties of liberalism, in Scruton’s words:

[W]e find near-universal agreement among American moral philosophers that individual autonomy and respect for rights are the root conceptions of moral order, with the state conceived either as an instrument for safeguarding autonomy or — if given a larger role — as an instrument for rectifying disadvantage in the name of “social justice.” The arguments given for these positions are invariably secular, egalitarian, and founded in an abstract idea of rational choice. And they are attractive arguments, since they justify both a public morality and a shared political order in ways that allow for the peaceful coexistence of people with different faiths, different commitments, and deep metaphysical disagreements. The picture of the moral life that I have presented is largely compatible with these arguments. But it also points to two important criticisms that might be made of them.

The first criticism is that the contractarian position fails to take our situation as organisms seriously. We are embodied beings, and our relations are mediated by our bodily presence. All of our most important emotions are bound up with this: erotic love, the love of children and parents, the attachment to home, the fear of death and suffering, the sympathy for others in their pain or fear — none of these things would make sense if it were not for our situation as organisms…. If we were disembodied rational agents — “noumenal selves“… — then our moral burdens would be lightly worn and would amount only to the side constraints required to reconcile the freedom of each of us with the equal freedom of our neighbors. But we are embodied beings, who are drawn to each other as such, trapped into erotic and familial emotions that create radical distinctions, unequal claims, fatal attachments, and territorial needs, and much of moral life is concerned with the negotiation of these dark regions of the psyche.

The second criticism is that our obligations are not and cannot be reduced to those that guarantee our mutual freedom. Noumenal selves come into a world unencumbered by ties and attachments for the very reason that they do not come into the world at all…. For us humans, who enter a world marked by the joys and sufferings of those who are making room for us, who enjoy protection in our early years and opportunities in our maturity, the field of obligation is wider than the field of choice.  We are bound by ties that we never chose, and our world contains values and challenges that intrude from beyond the comfortable arena of our agreements. In the attempt to encompass these values and challenges, human beings ahve developed concepts that have little or no place in liberal theories of the social contract — concepts of the sacred and the sublime, of evil and redemption, that suggest a completely different orientation to the world than that assumed by modern moral philosophy.

(See also “The Shallowness of Secular Ethical Systems” and “Rawls vs. Reality“.)

The Ukraine Controversy and Trump’s Popularity

The dust hasn’t settled yet, and probably won’t settle for many months, but here’s an interim report. The graph below depicts Trump’s approval ratings, according to a reliable source: Rasmussen Reports:

Rasmussen’s polling method covers all respondents (a sample of likely voters) over a span of three days. The gaps represent weekends, when Rasumussen doesn’t publish the results of the presidential approval poll.

The Washington Post broke the story on September 20 about Trump’s July 25 phone conversation with the president of Ukraine. Thus the results for September 16 through September 20 didn’t reflect the effects of the story on the views of Rasmussen’s respondents. Trump’s approval ratings continued to rise after September 20, and peaked on September 24, the day on which the House officially initiated an impeachment inquiry. Trump’s approval ratings bottomed on October 25 and have since rebounded to where they were on September 16.

In the longer view, Trump’s current approval ratings are at about the center of their range of the past two years, and well above the dismal ratings that dominated most of the first year of his presidency:

In sum, the reaction of likely voters to the Trump-Ukraine controversy is rather tepid. It may heat up if the House moves approves articles of impeachment, with the controversy as a centerpiece. But as of now it seems (to me) that likely voters are reacting as follows:

They don’t care much about U.S.-Ukraine affairs.

They don’t care much about what Trump might have done to get the Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden’s son.

Biden’s history with Ukraine is as crooked as Trump’s putative attempt to extort an investigation of Biden’s son by Ukraine.

Even if the charges against Trump are true, in this case, it’s just Trump being Trump. Ho hum.

P.S. If you’re unimpressed by Trump’s approval ratings, you should read this post. Next to Obama he is a hero. But he has to be a hero, given the poisoned atmosphere that makes it hard for him to rise in the estimation of voters.

The Trump Disadvantage

I keep a database of statistics compiled by Rasmussen Reports. One of the statistics is based on a weekly poll in which likely voters are asked about the direction of the country; specifically, whether it is going in the right direction or is on the wrong track. That’s a vague question, which leaves it up to the respondent to define what’s right and what’s wrong. A respondent might, for example, reply according to how he is feeling at the moment about the performance of the president. Whatever the case, I compute a weekly value for the ratio right direction/wrong track.

A second statistic is a direct measure of the president’s popularity. It is given by the following ratio: fraction of respondents strongly approving the president’s performance/fraction of respondents either approving or disapproving of the president’s performance. (This ratio disregards persons not venturing an opinion pro or con.)

(For more about these two metrics, see this post.)

Take Obama’s eight years as president (please!). Excluding the first several weeks of Obama’ first term, when his stratospheric approval ratings had more to do with hope than performance, here’s the relationship between the two metrics (with right direction/wrong track on the horizontal axis):

There’s a strong but not perfect relationship, which suggests that factors other than the president’s performance affect respondents’ views of the state of the nation. But it is evident that perceptions of the state of the nation do have a strong effect on judgments about the president’s performance (and vice versa).

Given that, the question arises whether Trump gets as much credit (or discredit) as Obama did for the perceived state of the nation. This graph covers Trump’s first term to date, and the same span of Obama’s first term, excluding (in both cases) the early “honeymoon” weeks:

Opinions of Trump have been so poisoned (with help from Trump, himself) that he can’t muster higher approval ratings than Obama did unless voters feel considerably better about the state of the nation under Trump than they did under Obama. A strong-approval ratio of 0.36, for example, was achieved by Obama with a right direction/wrong track ratio of about 0.7, whereas Trump can’t muster a strong-approval ratio of 0.36 unless the right direction/wrong track ratio is about 0.85.

What does that mean for Trump’s re-election? It won’t happen if between now and election day 2020 there is a sharp economic downturn, a severe stock market correction, or a major defense/foreign policy crisis of some kind. An impeachment trial, on the other hand, might be just the thing Trump needs to garner enough independent votes for re-election.

Trump Re-election Watch

UPDATED 12/03/19

See this post for explanations of the metrics discussed below.

Rasmussen Reports publishes a presidential-approval poll that I have been recording since the fall of 2008, when Barack Obama was elected to his first term. One of the statistics that I glean from the polling results is the strong-approval rating. Obama won re-election on November 8, 2012, in the 198th week of his presidency. His strong-approval rating was 34 percent on the day before the election, and had reached 36 percent during the week before the election. Trump’s strong-approval rating has been fluctuating between 30 percent and 39 percent for the past 18 months, and now stands at 33 percent.

I also compute an enthusiasm ratio. This stood at 0.33 for Obama in the week before he won re-election in November 2012. It is now just slightly higher for Trump, at 0.35.

Figure 4

Further, there is the “right track”/”wrong direction metric”:

In the week before the election of 2012, the ratio stood at 0.80. That was as high as it had  been since the beginning of Obama’s presidency, and a good omen for Obama’s re-election. In Trump’s case, the metric has been sliding lately, and now stands at 0.67.

If these three indicators say anything about Trump’s re-election chances, he has a lot of work to do in the next year. Or, to put it differently, some things have to break his way; for example, an anti-impeachment backlash among independent voters, a compelling defense in the Senate trial (assuming that there will be one), or some very damaging revelations (damaging to Democrats) about Spygate by the Department of Justice’s Inspector General and John Durham, who is conducting a criminal investigation of the origins of Spygate.

Note: The slight discrepancy in the horizontal scales of the two figures is caused by the frequency of the underlying statistics: daily in the case of the first figure; weekly in the case of the second one. Converting days to weeks (as is the case with the first figure) causes the slight discrepancy. Specifically, 366 days/7 days per week = 52.29 weeks and 365 days/7weeks = 52.14 weeks, not 52 weeks. Over a span of 4 years, there’s a difference of 0.71 week between the two methods.

White Privilege

I won’t repeat very much of what is found in these two articles about so-called white privilege. They almost adequately address the phenomenon of superior life outcomes, on average, among whites relative to blacks. What are the causes, according to the writers? This is from the second article:

Geographic determinism, personal responsibility, family structure, and culture work [together] to explain differences in outcomes. Recall Raj Chetty, whose research found a correlation between neighbourhoods and economic mobility. His study turned up only one other local characteristic that rivalled social capital in boosting social mobility: two-parent households. However, it isn’t enough just to live in a two-parent household. If you grow up amid intact families, the American Dream is alive and well. Indeed, the proliferation of intact families in a neighbourhood serves to increase social capital.

Furthermore, the social capital which underpins geographic determinism is ultimately a consequence of the culture of a neighbourhood. These values influence the decisions made by those living in the neighbourhood. These decisions then feed into family structure, ultimately reinforcing the neighbourhood’s culture while preserving social capital.

All of this is to say, each of these factors are connected. On their own, they can only explain part of why group outcomes differ. But together, they paint a clearer picture than the one drawn by the adherents of white privilege.

These factors are less thrilling than blaming a specific racial group. If we want to feel the satisfaction of directing blame while enhancing in-group solidarity, then invoking white privilege is not a bad strategy. “White privilege” gives you a simple answer and a clear enemy. But if we truly want to understand and mitigate group differences, then taking a closer look at the data is a far better approach.

Here and throughout the two articles, however, the writers fail to name and discuss the basic determinant of differential outcomes between blacks and whites, on average. It is the crucial determinant which underlies those that they list. That determinant, of course, is the wide and persistent white-black intelligence gap.

Greater intelligence means, among many things, higher income (and thus a greater propensity to accumulate wealth), a willingness to defer gratification and to strive toward long-term objectives (by saving and acquiring education, for example), and a less-violent disposition (and thus a lower propensity to commit crimes that result in long-term incarceration, sustained loss of income, and family dissolution).

The intelligence gap can be called a privilege only if the superior ability of blacks, on average, to jump higher and sprint faster than whites can be called a privilege. I am waiting in vain to hear about black-athletic privilege, which has produced a multitude of black multi-millionaires. (I am also waiting in vain to hear about Askhkenazi Jew privilege and East Asian privilege, inasmuch as members of both groups, on average, are more intelligent and thus, on average, more highly compensated than non-Ashkenazi Americans.)

An essential fact of life is that every human being possesses a different set of physical and mental endowments than every other human being. And it is a matter of personal responsibility to make the most of one’s endowments. Blaming one’s failures on others may, somehow, be satisfying (though it has never been my style). And it may even result in the tearing down of others (e.g., affirmative action, which has penalized millions of better-qualified whites; a massive tax burden, borne disproportionately by whites, to support mostly futile attempts to lift up blacks).

But the effect of such schemes has been to harm blacks in many ways; for example, by depriving them of jobs that might have been created for them with wasted tax dollars, by putting them in jobs and college majors that they couldn’t handle, and by teaching them personal irresponsibility.

Why Is Capitalism Under Attack from the Right?

Many conservatives, this one included, have been or are becoming critical of capitalism. Near the end of a recent post, for example, I say that

capitalism is an amoral means to material ends. It is not the servant of society, properly understood. Nor is it the servant of conservative principles, which include (inter alia) the preservation of traditional morality, both as an end and as a binding and civilizing force.

One aspect of capitalism is that it enables the accumulation of great wealth and power. The “robber barons” of the late 19th century and early 20th century accumulated great wealth by making possible the production of things (e.g., oil and steel) that made life materially better for Americans rich and poor.

Though the “robber barons” undoubtedly wielded political power, they did so in an age when mass media consisted of printed periodicals (newspapers and magazines). But newspapers and magazines never dominated the attention of the public in the way that radio, movies, television, and electronically transmitted “social media” do today. Moreover, there were far more printed periodicals then than now, and they offered competing political views (unlike today’s periodicals, which are mainly left of center, when not merely frivolous.)

Which is to say that the “robber barons” may have “bought and sold” politicians, but they weren’t in the business of — or very effective at — shaping public opinion. (f they had been, they wouldn’t have been targets of incessant attacks by populist politicians, and anti-trust legislation wouldn’t have been enacted to great huzzahs from the public.

Today’s “robber barons”, by contrast, have accumulated their wealth by providing products and services that enable them to shape public opinion. Joel Kotkin puts it this way:

In the past, the oligarchy tended to be associated with either Wall Street or industrial corporate executives. But today the predominant and most influential group consists of those atop a handful of mega-technology firms. Six firms—Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Netflix—have achieved a combined net worth equal to one-quarter of the nasdaq, more than the next 282 firms combined and equal to the GDP of France. Seven of the world’s ten most valuable companies come from this sector. Tech giants have produced eight of the twenty wealthiest people on the planet. Among the na­tion’s billionaires, all those under forty live in the state of California, with twelve in San Francisco alone. In 2017, the tech industry pro­duced eleven new billionaires, mostly in California….

Initially many Americans, even on the left, saw the rise of the tech oligarchy as both transformative and positive. Observing the rise of the technology industry, the futurist Alvin Toffler prophesied “the dawn of a new civilization,”2 with vast opportunities for societal and human growth. But today we confront a reality more reminiscent of the feudal past—with ever greater concentrations of wealth, along with less social mobility and material progress.

Rather than Toffler’s tech paradise, we increasingly confront what the Japanese futurist Taichi Sakaiya, writing three decades ago, saw as the dawn of “a high-tech middle ages.”3 Rather than epitomizing American ingenuity and competition, the tech oligarchy increasingly resembles the feudal lords of the Middle Ages. With the alacrity of the barbarian warriors who took control of territory after the fall of the Roman Empire, they have seized the strategic digital territory, and they ruthlessly defend their stake.

Such concentrations of wealth naturally seek to concentrate power. In the Middle Ages, this involved the control of land and the instruments of violence. In our time, the ascendant tech oligarchy has exploited the “natural monopolies” of web-based business. Their “super-platforms” depress competition, squeeze suppliers, and reduce opportunities for potential rivals, much as the monopolists of the late nineteenth century did. Firms like Google, Facebook, and Microsoft control 80 to 90 percent of their key markets and have served to further widen class divides not only in the United States but around the world.

Once exemplars of entrepreneurial risk-taking, today’s tech elites are now entrenched monopolists. Increasingly, these firms reflect the worst of American capitalism—squashing competitors, using inden­tured servants from abroad for upwards of 40 percent of their Silicon Valley workforce, fixing wages, and avoiding taxes—while creating ever more social anomie and alienation.

The tech oligarchs are forging a post-democratic future, where opportunity is restricted only to themselves and their chosen few. As technology investor Peter Thiel has suggested, democracy—based on the fundamental principles of individual responsibility and agency—does not fit comfortably with a technocratic mindset that believes superior software can address and modulate every problem. [“America’s Drift Toward Feudalism“, American Affairs Journal, Winter 2019]

I can’t deny that rise of the tech oligarchs and their willingness and ability to move public opinion leftward probably influenced my view of capitalism. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It is evidence that, contra Keynes, I am not the slave of some defunct economist.

Will public opinion shift enough to cause the containment of today’s “robber barons”? I doubt it. Most Republican politicians are trapped by their pro-capitalist rhetoric. Most Democrat politicians are trapped by their ideological alignment with the the “barons” and the affluent classes that are dependent on and allied with them.

Leftism in Summary

In “Leftism” I discuss at length the left’s agenda, assumptions and attitudes, strategy and tactics, and psychology. I then address the costs of leftist schemes and possible remedies for the left’s encroachments on liberty.

There are, spread throughout the entry, many aperçus about leftism. This one comes closest to a summation of the left’s  motivations and aims:

The most obvious assumption [of leftism] is that perceived “problems” — perceived by leftists, that is — must be “solved” by state action.

That statement warrants elaboration. Leftism isn’t just sympathy for the poor and oppressed or fear for the fate of mankind. If it were, an overwhelming majority of human beings would be leftists. Leftism is the conjoining of those attitudes and the deluded belief that the best (and sometimes only) vehicle for redressing “wrongs” and remedying “problems” is the use of state power to command the necessary resources and coerce the necessary actions.

The presumption of governmental omniscience and omnipotence has many anti-libertarian implications. Here are some leading examples:

Income and wealth belong to the state.

The property of individuals and businesses is the state’s to control.

Individuals and businesses do not have freedom of association.

Religion, beyond ceremonial observances, has no place in the governance of the populace and must not be allowed to influence or interfere with that governance.

The state decides basic social questions, such as (but far from limited to) the nature of marriage and gender.

The state decides religious and scientific matters, such as (but far from limited to) the legality of teaching alternatives to neo-Darwinianism and the “correctness” of carbon-dioxide-driven “climate change”.

All persons are born equally meritorious in all respects, regardless of their (apparent) intellectual and physical endowments (“nurture” 100%, “nature” 0%), and must be accorded the same opportunities regardless of their endowments.

Exceptions may be made for persons who govern, “entertain”, play professional sports, deliver “news” and opinions, profess and administer at expensive universities, or are otherwise deemed worthy of special treatment — because some people are “more equal” than others. But at every opportunity, the exceptions will be limited to those persons who confess to the omniscience and omnipotence of the state.

Despite universal equality of merit, the state may authorize the killing of some otherwise blameless persons (e.g., children in the womb, the elderly) if they are deemed to be “unequal” (or simply an inconvenience to others).

Despite universal equality of merit, some persons commit acts that are called crimes because “society” denies them a “fair share” of economic rewards and social recognition.

Dissent from the foregoing positions (and others not listed here) is punishable by ostracism, loss of position, and in some cases (there should be more) civil and criminal penalties. (Execution isn’t out of the question.)

Most leftists won’t admit to such absolutism and barbarism, and will try to find “acceptable” ways of characterizing their implicit views. But leftism is what it is, and shouldn’t be sugar-coated.

Can Libertarianism and Conservatism Be Reconciled?

This post is inspired by an article in The Objective Standard, which proclaims itself

the preeminent source for commentary from an Objectivist perspective, objectivism being Ayn Rand‘s philosophy of reason, egoism, and capitalism.

The writer, with whom I have jousted sporadically for 15 years, will go unnamed here because I want to emphasize his ideology, of which he is merely a representative advocate. He is either an Objectivist who happens to be a libertarian or a libertarian who happens to be an Objectivist.

In either case, his article manifests libertarianism as it is widely understood: an ideology of individualism — the right of the individual to lead his life he sees fit. That central tenet of libertarianism is a condensation of John Stuart Mill’s harm principle:

[T]he sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right… The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign. [On Liberty (1869), Chapter I: Introductory]

By the same token, a consistent libertarian rejects conservatism’s emphasis on social norms. Mill is clear on that point:

Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough: there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own. There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence: and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs, as protection against political despotism. [Ibid.]

Mill thus rejects the enforcement of social norms, “except [in] a few of the most obvious cases” by either the state or “society” (ibid.). This exception is a cop-out, a slippery way of trying to eat one’s cake and have it, too. What Mill is saying, really, is that there are some social norms he would like to see enforced and many that he claims not to care about. Thus Mill reveals his inner authoritarian: the “decider” about which social norms are good and which are bad. (Mill isn’t alone among libertarians in there willingness to resort to statist coercion, as I will point out later.)

Lest anyone misunderstand Mill’s overt position about social norms, he expands on it a few paragraphs later:

These are good reasons for remonstrating with [a person who acts contrary to social custom], or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil [including social censure] in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him, must be calculated [intended] to produce evil to some one else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

By that “logic”, an individual is a law unto himself, and may do as he pleases as long as he believes (or claims to believe) that his conduct is not harmful to others. (What is an “obvious” exception to Mill may not be obvious to the ardent individualists in a Millian nirvana.) Is that what the writer believes?

I doubt that he would directly acknowledge such a belief. But it is implicit in his glorification of the Enlightenment and attack on conservatism. In particular, he praises some unexceptionable cases of personal liberation, which he characterizes as a illustrative of Enlightenment values. From there, he attacks a contemporary critic of the Enlightenment and the godfather of conservatism, Edmund Burke.

To begin at the beginning, the article opens with vignettes about three women: one who was raised an Orthodox Jew, put into an arranged marriage, and later left Orthodox Judaism (the fate of her marriage is left unmentioned); one who escaped the totalitarianism of North Korea; and one who fled an oppressive Muslim upbringing Africa and Saudi Arabia. The common theme of the stories is that

these remarkable women from such diverse backgrounds ultimately found freedom and a world of ideas and experiences to enrich their lives [which] is a cause for celebration and for reflecting on how fortunate we are—those of us who did not face such daunting odds. It’s also cause for reflection on the millions of people today who still live in the silent, senseless darkness of ignorance and terror.

Further,

in the light of history, the experiences these women escaped are not only not rare, but are in fact how most people have lived for most of their lives in most of the nations of the world. Illiteracy, ignorance, poverty, hunger, and disease are by a wide margin the most common state of affairs in which humanity has found itself. It is only in the past two centuries that a portion of the human race has risen out of darkness into enlightenment. And it has done so in a manner very much like the stories these women tell.

What I mean is that although these are stories of personal liberation and discovery, Western civilization as a whole went through something similar on a culture-wide level beginning around 1700, in a period that we, appropriately enough, call the Enlightenment.

The article ends there (for non-subscribers). A subsequent excerpt at the writer’s blog zooms in on the Enlightenment:

[O]ne of the more prominent conservative enemies of the Enlightenment today, Sorhab [sic, it’s Sohrab] Ahmari, … recently wrote in the religious journal First Things that the Enlightenment is responsible for “the eclipse of permanent truths, family stability, community solidarity, and much else,” and has led to “the pornographization of daily life, to the culture of death, to the cult of competitiveness.”…

… When Ahmari writes of “permanent truths,” he does not mean the natural rights of mankind, let alone the economic forces of supply and demand or the scientific laws of biology. He means religious dogma, handed down by an established church.

When he speaks of “family stability,” he does not mean harmony attained by respecting and nourishing the value of every family member. He means the subordination of each one to unchosen obligations; the prohibition of the right to marry for large portions of our society; and opposition to the right of unhappy spouses to divorce and to value their own flourishing and happiness along with their family commitments.

When he speaks of “communal solidarity,” he means the right of the community to sacrifice the happiness and freedom of individuals within that community—to censor people; to dictate how they may use their property and what jobs they may take; to tell them what books they may read and what movies they may watch.

And when he denounces “the cult of competitiveness,” he means the right to excel, the right to aspire, the right to pursue happiness and achieve one’s dreams. He is mounting a direct attack on the value of enjoyment. When Ahmari denounces what he calls the “fetishizing of autonomy,” his meaning is unmistakable: individualism—the right of the individual to his or her own life—is his primary target.

Ahmari and his admirers pledge themselves to a society of—in Burke’s words, “submission,” “obedience,” “subordination,” and “servitude.” And they do so while wrapping themselves in the American flag.

How does the writer know what Ahmari means by “permanent truths”, “family stability”, “communal solidarity”, and “the cult of competitiveness”? The footnotes to the article (conveniently available to the non-subscriber) list two pieces by Ahmari. The first is a long epistle signed by Ahmari and fourteen other persons. The second is a later article in which Ahmari addresses some criticisms of the letter. In fact, Ahmari legitimately criticizes the consequences of the “liberalization” of society by government interventions and cultural warfare, “liberalization” to which some so-called conservatives (he calls them “consensus conservatives”) have been party.

The writer is keen to present horror stories that illustrate (in his view) the consequences of the failure of the Enlightenment to arrive in every part of the globe. But as a defender of liberty he should be equally keen to present horror stories that illustrate the consequences of Enlightenment “liberalism” in the West.

One such story is the increasing frequency of mass shootings in America, which has occurred (not coincidentally, I believe) with the decline of religiosity and the tearing down of traditional social norms.

Another such story, which the writer skips over, is the legalization of pre-natal infanticide — known otherwise as abortion — which Ahmari refers to as “the culture of death”. If the writer has reversed his long-held pro-abortion stance, I can find no evidence of it on his blog. But that is entirely consistent with his implicit endorsement of the harm principle, according to which every person is a law unto himself.

I return now to the article and the writer’s brief discussion of Edmund Burke’s political philosophy. How does the writer know that Burke’s kind of society is one of “submission”, “obedience”, “subordination”, and “servitude” — or what Burke meant by those terms? Perhaps there are clues in Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), which the writer cites four times. The following passage seems to be at the heart of the writer’s j’accuse:

I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her [the Queen of France] with insult. But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever. Never, never more, shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom! The unbought grace of life, the cheap defence of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprise, is gone! It is gone, that sensibility of principle, that chastity of honor, which felt a stain like a wound, which inspired courage whilst it mitigated ferocity, which ennobled whatever it touched, and under which vice itself lost half its evil by losing all its grossness!

Romantic twaddle? Perhaps, but Burke isn’t so much lamenting the demise of the monarchy of France as he is contrasting it with what followed.

As Burke understood — and conservatives understand — in the real world one doesn’t get to choose (or build) a perfect world. At best, one gets to choose between a tolerable world, a less-tolerable one, and an intolerable one. Burke foretold in Reflections that the revolutionaries of 1789 were laying groundwork for something intolerable; for example:

They are aware that the worst consequences might happen to the public in accomplishing this double ruin of Church and State; but they are so heated with their theories, that they give more than hints that this ruin, with all the mischiefs that must lead to it and attend it, and which to themselves appear quite certain, would not be unacceptable to them, or very remote from their wishes.

Those who would argue that the French Revolution and the ensuing Reign of Terror were preferable to the excesses of the monarchy would — if they were consistent — argue that the Bolshevik Revolution and the subsequent reigns of terror were preferable to the rule of the Tsars. (I duly note that the writer has sympathy for the victims of communism; perhaps he should therefore be more understanding of Burke’s sympathy for the victims of the French Revolution.)

What did Burke really believe? I will draw on Yuval Levin’s The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left. I have reviewed the book and found it wanting, but not because Levin fails to capture the essence of Burke’s political philosophy. (Follow the link in the preceding sentence to understand my reservations about the book.) Here are relevant excerpts of Levin’s book, which (as I say in my review) capture the philosophical differences between Burke and Paine:

Paine lays out his political vision in greater detail in Rights of Man than in any of his earlier writings: a vision of individualism, natural rights, and equal justice for all made possible by a government that lives up to true republican ideals. [Kindle edition, p. 34]

*     *     *

Politics [to Burke] was first and foremost about particular people living together, rather than about general rules put into effect. This emphasis caused Burke to oppose the sort of liberalism expounded by many of the radical reformers of his day. They argued in the parlance of natural rights drawn from reflections on an individualist state of nature and sought to apply the principles of that approach directly to political life. [Op. cit., p. 11]

*     *     *

For Paine, the natural equality of all human beings translates to complete political equality and therefore to a right to self-determination. The formation of society was itself a choice made by free individuals, so the natural rights that people bring with them into society are rights to act as one chooses, free of coercion. Each person should have the right to do as he chooses unless his choices interfere with the equal rights and freedoms of others. And when that happens— when society as a whole must act through its government to restrict the freedom of some of its members— government can only act in accordance with the wishes of the majority, aggregated through a political process. Politics, in this view, is fundamentally an arena for the exercise of choice, and our only real political obligations are to respect the freedoms and choices of others.

For Burke, human nature can only be understood within society and therefore within the complex web of relations in which every person is embedded. None of us chooses the nation, community, or family into which we are born, and while we can choose to change our circumstances to some degree as we get older, we are always defined by some crucial obligations and relationships not of our own choosing. A just and healthy politics must recognize these obligations and relationships and respond to society as it exists, before politics can enable us to make changes for the better. In this view, politics must reinforce the bonds that hold people together, enabling us to be free within society rather than defining freedom to the exclusion of society and allowing us to meet our obligations to past and future generations, too. Meeting obligations is as essential to our happiness and our nature as making choices. [Op cit., pp. 91-92]

Paine is the quintessential “liberal” (leftist) — a rationalistic ideologue who has a view of the world as it ought to be. And it is that view which governments should serve, or be overthrown. In that respect, there is no distance at all between Paine and his pseudo-libertarian admirers (e.g., here). Their mutual attachment to “natural rights” lends them an air of moral superiority, but their conception of “natural rights” as innate in human beings — like the harm principle — is made of air. Natural rights, properly understood, arise from the social norms that writer seems to disdain (though if he does, I wonder how he has managed to survive and thrive in a world dominated by social norms).

To the writer’s great disappointment, I’m sure, the truth of the matter is that social norms — including political and economic ones — are emergent. (This is not a morally relativistic position.) Michael Oakeshott, a latter-day Burkean, puts it this way:

Government, … as the conservative … understands it, does not begin with a vision of another, different and better world, but with the observation of the self-government practised even by men of passion in the conduct of their enterprises; it begins in the informal adjustments of interests to one another which are designed to release those who are apt to collide from the mutual frustration of a collision. Sometimes these adjustments are no more than agreements between two parties to keep out of each other’s way; sometimes they are of wider application and more durable character, such as the International Rules for for the prevention of collisions at sea. In short, the intimations of government are to be found in ritual, not in religion or philosophy; in the enjoyment of orderly and peaceable behaviour, not in the search for truth or perfection….

To govern, then, as the conservative understands it, is to provide a vinculum juris for those manners of conduct which, in the circumstances, are least likely to result in a frustrating collision of interests; to provide redress and means of compensation for those who suffer from others behaving in a contrary manners; sometimes to provide punishment for those who pursue their own interests regardless of the rules; and, of course, to provide a sufficient force to maintain the authority of an arbiter of this kind. Thus, governing is recognized as a specific and limited activity; not the management of an enterprise, but the rule of those engaged in a great diversity of self-chosen enterprises. It is not concerned with concrete persons, but with activities; and with activities only in respect of their propensity to collide with one another. It is not concerned with moral right and wrong, it is not designed to make men good or even better; it is not indispensable on account of ‘the natural depravity of mankind’ but merely because of their current disposition to be extravagant; its business is to keep its subjects at peace with one another in the activities in which they have chosen to seek their happiness. And if there is any general idea entailed in this view, it is, perhaps, that a government which does not sustain the loyalty of its subjects is worthless; and that while one which (in the old puritan phrase) ‘commands the truth’ is incapable of doing so (because some of its subjects will believe its ‘truth’ to be in error), one which is indifferent to ‘truth’ and ‘error’ alike, and merely pursues peace, presents no obstacle to the necessary loyalty.

… [A]s the conservative understands it, modification of the rules should always reflect, and never impose, a change in the activities and beliefs of those who are subject to them, and should never on any occasion be so great as to destroy the ensemble. Consequently, the conservative will have nothing to do with innovations designed to meet merely hypothetical situations; he will prefer to enforce a rule he has got rather than invent a new one; he will think it appropriate to delay a modification of the rules until it is clear that the change of circumstances it is designed  to reflect has come to stay for a while; he will be suspicious of proposals for change in excess of what the situation calls for, of rulers who demand extra-ordinary powers in order to make great changes and whose utterances re tied to generalities like ‘the public good’ or social justice’, and of Saviours of Society who buckle on armour and seek dragons to slay; he will think it proper to consider the occasion of the innovation with care; in short, he will be disposed to regard politics as an activity in which a valuable set of tools is renovated from time to time and kept in trim rather than as an opportunity for perpetual re-equipment. [Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, New and Expanded Edition, pp. 427-31]

As for the Enlightenment in which the writer puts so much stock, it has a fatal flaw, which is reason (a.k.a. rationalism). As Wikipedia puts it,

The Enlightenment included a range of ideas centered on reason as the primary source of knowledge….

Where reason is

the capacity of consciously making sense of things, establishing and verifying facts, applying logic, and adapting or justifying practices, institutions, and beliefs based on new or existing information.

But reason is in fact shaped by customs, instincts, erroneous beliefs, faulty logic, venal motivations, and unexamined prejudices. Objectivism, for example, is just another error-laden collection of “religious” dogmas, as discussed here, here, and here.

On a higher plane, what could be more revealing of the prejudices and emotions upon which reason ultimately rests than the long-running Einstein-Bohr debate, which stemmed from Einstein’s reasonable prejudice that quantum mechanics gives an unrealistic (indeterminate) depiction of reality. (The interpretation of quantum mechanics still remains unsettled, more than 90 years after the debate began.)

Further, as the Wikipedia article admits, the Enlightenment — like its subsequent manifestations in politics and pseudo-science (e.g., Malthusianism, Marxism, Objectivism, “climate change”, “social justice”, “equality”) — relies on reductionism, which is

the practice of oversimplifying a complex idea or issue to the point of minimizing or distorting it.

(Thus the shallowness and inconsistency of secular ethical systems, which include but are far from limited to libertarianism and Objectivism.)

Reductionist reason fails us:

Love, to take a leading example, is a feeling that just is. The why and wherefore of it is beyond our ability to understand and explain. Some of the feelings attached to it can be expressed in prose, poetry, and song, but those are superficial expressions that don’t capture the depth of love and why it exists.

The world of science is of no real help. Even if feelings of love could be expressed in scientific terms — the action of hormone A on brain region X — that would be worse than useless. It would reduce love to chemistry, when we know that there’s more to it than that. Why, for example, is hormone A activated by the presence or thought of person M but not person N, even when they’re identical twins?

The world of science is of no real help about “getting to the bottom of things.” Science is an infinite regress. S is explained in terms of T, which is explained in terms of U, which is explained in terms of V, and on and on. For example, there was the “indivisible” atom, which turned out to consist of electrons, protons, and neutrons. But electrons have turned out to be more complicated than originally believed, and protons and neutrons have been found to be made of smaller particles with distinctive characteristics. So it’s reasonable to ask if all of the particles now considered elementary are really indivisible. Perhaps there other more-elementary particles yet to be hypothesized and discovered. And even if all of the truly elementary particles are discovered, scientists will still be unable to explain what those particles really “are.”

Reason is valuable when it consists of the narrow application of logic to hard facts. I want bridge-builders and aircraft-makers to use the mathematical tools and physical facts at their disposal. It should be noted, however, that the origins of those tools and the gathering of those facts long preceded the Enlightenment, and that their subsequent development was (and is) a project unto its own. To take a notable example, Isaac Newton, among other things the inventor of calculus as we know it (contemporaneously with Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz), was religious (though unorthodox), a student of the occult, and an alchemist (see this). Even children of the Enlightment can be — are often are — supremely irrational and steered by psychological forces beyond their ken.

In sum, reason has almost nothing to do with most of life — and especially not with politics, social norms, religion, or rebellion. The last is too often an act of emotion and interest-group advancement, which can be (and has been) justified by reason.

Just as reason fails us, so has the Enlightenment and much of what came in its wake.

A particular feature of the Enlightenment was that its rationalism gave rise to leftism. Thomas Sowell writes about the wages of leftist “intellectualism” in Intellectuals and Society:

One of the things intellectuals have been doing for a long time is loosening the bonds that hold a society together. They have sought to replace the groups into which people have sorted themselves with groupings created and imposed by the intelligentsia. Ties of family, religion, and patriotism, for example, have long been treated as suspect or detrimental by the intelligentsia, and new ties that intellectuals have created, such as class — and more recently “gender” — have been projected as either more real or more important. [p. 303]

In my view, the

left’s essential agenda is the repudiation of ordered liberty of the kind that arises from evolved social norms, and the replacement of that liberty by sugar-coated oppression. The bread and circuses of imperial Rome have nothing on Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, Obamacare, and the many other forms of personal and corporate welfare that are draining America of its wealth and élan. All of that “welfare” has been bought at the price of economic and social liberty (which are indivisible).

Freedom from social bonds and social norms is not liberty. Freedom from religion, which seems to be the objective of rationalists (like the writer), is bound to yield less liberty and more crime, which further erodes liberty.

I put it to you this way: Would you rather live in the rationalistic world of libertarian-Objectivists or in Burke’s (and Oakeshott’s) real one?

Here’s a clue to the answer that I hope you will choose: The ideal world of a rationalist cannot be attained by real people acting in mutually beneficial cooperation, which is the essence of the free markets about which the writer claims to care so much. Rationalism is destructive of religion (which on balance is a bulwark of liberty), long-standing social norms (which in fact enable liberty), and the necessary right of free people in society to make mistakes and learn from them.

The writer’s diatribe reminds me of the old, sad story that has been repeated innumerable times throughout mankind’s recorded history. The quest for perfection along one or another moral dimension breeds fanaticism. Fanaticism turns into an unrelenting evil of its own. Just ask one of the innumerable victims of communism, some of whom have survived it.

Moreover, as I have pointed out many times, the kind of libertarianism espoused by the writer isn’t the real thing. A true libertarian is a traditional conservative who

respects socially evolved norms because those norms evidence and sustain the mutual trust, respect, forbearance, and voluntary aid that — taken together — foster willing, peaceful coexistence and beneficially cooperative behavior. And what is liberty but willing peaceful coexistence and beneficially cooperative behavior?

Which isn’t to say, by any means, that a place in which traditional norms prevail will be perfect. Far from it — and some places, such as those cited by the writer — are farther than others. But the route to improvement can’t be found by shredding norms willy-nilly and declaring that every man is a law unto himself. In fact, what some libertarians urge, paradoxically, is the selective shredding of social norms by the state. (another manifestation of the smug authoritarianism of the “liberal order”). That is the “logic” of so-called libertarianism.

What really happens, of course, is that the shredding of social norms creates a void that is filled by chaos and then by the rule of power. The rule may be brutal like those of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao, or “benign” like those of today’s coercively governed Western “democracies”. But it will be a rule that so-called libertarians will rail against — in vain. The perfection of “rational” ideologies — libertarianism as well as fascism and socialism —  is indeed the enemy of the good. (Conservatism, properly understood, isn’t an ideology, though it has ideological implications.)

I conclude that libertarianism of the kind preached by the writer and his ilk cannot be reconciled with conservatism. But they should be allied against their common enemy: the oppressive state.

“Human Nature” by David Berlinski: A Revew

I became fan of David Berlinksi, who calls himself a secular Jew, after reading The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions, described on Berlinkski’s personal website as

a biting defense of faith against its critics in the New Atheist movement. “The attack on traditional religious thought,” writes Berlinski, “marks the consolidation in our time of science as the single system of belief in which rational men and women might place their faith, and if not their faith, then certainly their devotion.”

Here is most of what I say in “Atheistic Scientism Revisited” about The Devil’s Delusion:

Berlinski, who knows far more about science than I do, writes with flair and scathing logic. I can’t do justice to his book, but I will try to convey its gist.

Before I do that, I must tell you that I enjoyed Berlinski’s book not only because of the author’s acumen and biting wit, but also because he agrees with me. (I suppose I should say, in modesty, that I agree with him.) I have argued against atheistic scientism in many blog posts (see below).

Here is my version of the argument against atheism in its briefest form (June 15, 2011):

  1. In the material universe, cause precedes effect.
  2. Accordingly, the material universe cannot be self-made. It must have a “starting point,” but the “starting point” cannot be in or of the material universe.
  3. The existence of the universe therefore implies a separate, uncaused cause.

There is no reasonable basis — and certainly no empirical one — on which to prefer atheism to deism or theism. Strident atheists merely practice a “religion” of their own. They have neither logic nor science nor evidence on their side — and eons of belief against them.

As for scientism, I call upon Friedrich Hayek:

[W]e shall, wherever we are concerned … with slavish imitation of the method and language of Science, speak of “scientism” or the “scientistic” prejudice…. It should be noted that, in the sense in which we shall use these terms, they describe, of course, an attitude which is decidedly unscientific in the true sense of the word, since it involves a mechanical and uncritical application of habits of thought to fields different from those in which they have been formed. The scientistic as distinguished from the scientific view is not an unprejudiced but a very prejudiced approach which, before it has considered its subject, claims to know what is the most appropriate way of investigating it. [The Counter Revolution Of Science]

As Berlinski amply illustrates and forcibly argues, atheistic scientism is rampant in the so-called sciences. I have reproduced below some key passages from Berlinski’s book. They are representative, but far from exhaustive (though I did nearly exhaust the publisher’s copy limit on the Kindle edition). I have forgone the block-quotation style for ease of reading, and have inserted triple asterisks to indicate (sometimes subtle) changes of topic. [Go to my post for the excerpts.]

On the strength of The Devil’s Delusion, I eagerly purchased Berlinski’s latest book, Human Nature. I have just finished it, and cannot summon great enthusiasm for it. Perhaps that is so because I expected a deep and extended examination of the title’s subject. What I got, instead, was a collection of 23 disjointed essays, gathered (more or less loosely) into seven parts.

Only the first two parts, “Violence” and “Reason”, seem to address human nature, but often tangentially. “Violence” deals specifically with violence as manifested (mainly) in war and murder. The first essay, titled “The First World War”, is a tour de force — a dazzling (and somewhat dizzying) reconstruction of the complex and multi-tiered layering of the historical precedent, institutional arrangements, and personalities that led to the outbreak of World War I.

Aha, I thought to myself, Berlinkski is warming to his task, and will flesh out the relevant themes at which he hints in the first essay. And in the second and third essays, “The Best of Times” and “The Cause of War”, Berlinski flays the thesis of Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. But my post, “The Fallacy of Human Progress“, does a better job of it, thanks to the several critics and related sources quoted therein.

Berlinski ends the third essay with this observation:

Men go to war when they think that they can get away with murder.

Which is tantamount to an admission that Berlinski has no idea why men go to war, or would rather not venture an opinion on the subject. There is much of that kind of diffident agnosticism throughout the book, which is captured in his reply to an interviewer’s question in the book’s final essay:

Q. Would you share with us your hunches and suspicions about spiritual reality, the trend in your thinking, if not your firm beliefs?

A. No. Either I cannot or I will not. I do not know whether I am unable or unwilling. The question elicits in me a stubborn refusal. Please understand. It is not an issue of privacy. I have, after all, blabbed my life away: Why should I call a halt here? I suppose that I am by nature a counter-puncher. What I am able to discern of the religious experience often comes about reactively. V. S. Naipaul remarked recently that he found the religious life unthinkable.

He does? I was prompted to wonder. Why does he?

His attitude gives rise to mine. That is the way in which I wrote The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions.

Is there anything authentic in my religious nature?

Beats me.

That is a legitimate reply, but — I suspect — an evasive one.

Returning to the book’s ostensible subject, the second part, “Reason”, addresses human nature mainly in a negative way, that is, by pointing out (in various ways) flaws in the theory of evolution. There is no effort to knit the strands into a coherent theme. The following parts stray even further from the subject of the book’s title, and are even more loosely connected.

This isn’t to say that the book fails to entertain, for it often does that. For example, buried in a chapter on language, “The Recovery of Case”, is this remark:

Sentences used in the ordinary give-and-take of things are, of course, limited in their length. Henry James could not have constructed a thousand-word sentence without writing it down or suffering a stroke. Nor is recursion needed to convey the shock of the new. Four plain-spoken words are quite enough: Please welcome President Trump.

(I assume, given Berlinski’s track record for offending “liberal” sensibilities, that the italicized words refer to the shock of Trump’s being elected, and are not meant to disparage Trump.)

But the book also irritates, not only by its failure to deliver what the title seems to promise, but also by Berlinski’s proclivity for using the abstruse symbology of mathematical logic where words would do quite nicely and more clearly. In the same vein — showing off — is the penultimate essay, “A Conversation with Le Figaro“, which reproduces (after an introduction by Berlinksi) of a transcript of the interview — in French, with not a word of translation. Readers of the book will no doubt be more schooled in French than the typical viewer of prime-time TV fare, but many of them will be in my boat. My former fluency in spoken and written French has withered with time, and although I could still manage with effort to decipher the meaning of the transcript, it proved not to be worth the effort so I gave up on it.

There comes a time when once-brilliant persons can summon flashes of their old, brilliant selves but can no longer emit a sustained ray of brilliance. Perhaps that is true of Berlinski. I hope not, and will give him another try if he gives writing another try.

The Allure of Leftism

When I think of leftism, I often conjure my memory of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). If you haven’t seen the film, here’s the premise of the action:

Dr. Miles Bennell returns to his small town practice to find several of his patients suffering the paranoid delusion that their friends or relatives are impostors. He is initially skeptical, especially when the alleged doppelgangers are able to answer detailed questions about their victim’s lives, but he is eventually persuaded that something odd has happened and determines to find out what is causing this phenomenon.

The essence of what follows is captured in the following excerpts of the script:

Dr. Miles Bennell:

Jack! Thank God [you’re here]! The whole town’s been taken over by the pods!

Jack Bellicec:

Not quite. There’s still you and Becky.

Miles, it would have been so much easier if you’d gone to sleep last night.

Relax. We’re here to help you….

There’s nothing to be afraid of. We’re not going to hurt you. Once you understand, you’ll be grateful.

Remember how Teddy [his wife] and I fought against it. We were wrong.

Miles:

You mean Teddy doesn’t mind?

Jack:

Of course not. She feels exactly the way I do.

Miles:

Let us go! If we leave town, we won’t come back.

Jack:

We can’t let you go. You’re dangerous to us.

Don’t fight it, Miles. It’s no use. Sooner or later, you’ll have to go to sleep….

Miles, you and I are scientific men. You can understand the wonder of what’s happened.

Just think. Less than a month ago Santa Mira was like any other town — people with nothing but problems. Then out of the sky came a solution. Seeds drifting through space for years took root in a farmer’s field. From the seeds came pods which had the power to reproduce themselves in the exact likeness of any form of life….

There’s no pain. Suddenly, while you’re asleep they’ll absorb your minds, your memories — and you’re reborn into an untroubled world.

Miles:

Where everyone’s the same?

Jack:

Exactly.

Miles:

What a world.

We’re not the last humans left. They’ll destroy you!

Jack:

Tomorrow, you won’t want them to. Tomorrow, you’ll be one of us….

[Later, Miles is trying to flee the city with his girlfriend, Becky]

Becky:

I went to sleep, Miles, and it happened….

They were right. Stop acting like a fool, Miles, and accept us.

Miles [interior monologue]:

I’ve been afraid a lot of times in my life but I didn’t know the real meaning of fear until I had kissed Becky.

A moment’s sleep, and the girl I loved was an inhuman enemy bent on my destruction.

That moment’s sleep was death to Becky’s soul just as it had been for Jack and Teddy and Dan Kauffman and all the rest.

Their bodies were now hosts, harboring an alien form of life, a cosmic form. which, to survive must take over every human man….

Miles [later, screaming at passers by]:

You fools! You’re in danger! Can’t you see?

They’re after you! They’re after all of us! Our wives, our children, everyone!

They’re here already!

You’re next!

You’re next!

You’re next!

You’re next!

You’re next!

Miles’s pleas go unheeded and the pod people seem destined to conquer humanity. Resistance is met by force, of course, because there must be no dissent from the true way.

So why not just let go of yourself and give in to the allure of leftism? It’s as easy as going to sleep.

All you have to do is forget …

the bonds of love and fellowship that attach you to family and friends … because all human beings (and animals, too) are brothers and sisters under the skin, and even unknown strangers half a world away must be treated as family, notwithstanding human nature (and the mendacious nature those who spout this nonsense);

the ancient, civilizing, and uniting moral code that is embedded in the Ten Commandments … for it teaches hate toward those who don’t observe it (hate being whatever offends the stated beliefs of those who spout this nonsense);

the derivative practice of taking others as individuals, judging them by their actions, and rewarding them for their contributions … for that is discrimination and it must be remedied by celebrating and elevating persons because of certain preferred characteristics that they happen to possess (skin color, sex, sexual orientation, gender “identity” — preferred characteristics that are subject to change without notice);

the vast improvements in the well-being of humanity that are due to the free exchange of products and services, and which are diminished by governmental dictation of the scope and kind of exchange (beyond obviously harmful products and services) … for it is not right that some persons (owing to their inborn intelligence, creativity, effort, and willingness to take risks) should reap “inordinate” rewards for having made and done things that benefit others (though it is right that those who spout this nonsense should be honored and rewarded for doing so);

the lessons of failure seen time and time again where the foregoing practices have been suppressed in favor of social and economic “equality” (though the rulers and the favorites have always been more equal than everyone else) … because the next time it (the suppression) will be done right.

As Miranda says in The Tempest, about another realm of magical thinking,

O, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world
That has such people in ’t!


Related page and posts:

Leftism

Asymmetrical (Ideological) Warfare
An Addendum to (Asymmetrical) Ideological Warfare
Insidious Leftism
Intellectuals and Authoritarianism
Socialism, Communism, and Three Paradoxes
Understanding the “Resistance”: The Enemies Within
Leninthink and Left-think
The Subtle Authoritarianism of the “Liberal Order”
Society, Culture, and America’s Future
The Democrats’ Master Plan to Seize America

The Democrats’ Master Plan to Seize America

Although it remains unclear, even to Gordon Sondland, whether President Trump committed an impeachable offense in his dealings with Ukraine (formerly known as the Ukraine), Mr. Sondland has (perhaps unwittingly) abetted the Democrats’ master plan to seize the White House, Congress, and America.

By implicating Vice President Pence in the Ukraine affair, Sondland has laid the groundwork for the following chain of events:

  1. Trump is impeached by the House. He is then convicted by Senate, with a sufficient number of votes from GOP senators who are anxious to keep their seats and are therefore willing to believe that conviction is warranted by (media-driven) popular demand.
  2. Pence is then dispatched similarly. Even if he is president long enough to nominate a vice president, in accordance with Amendment XXV, the nominee would have to be approved by a majority of both houses of Congress — a majority that the House would not grant.
  3. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi then becomes president, according to the Presidential Succession Act of 1947.
  4. There is good reason to believe that the 1947 act is unconstitutional. But the Supreme Court’s weather vane — Chief Justice John Roberts — finds a clever way to uphold the 1947 act. Ms. Pelosi continues in the presidency until the inauguration of a Democrat president on January 20, 2021 — an outcome ensured by the impeachments and convictions.
  5. Democrats retain control of the House and gain control of the Senate, giving the fascist party a stranglehold on the federal government. Resistance from the Supreme Court (if Roberts re-grows a backbone) is nullified by court-packing.
  6. And that is that for America.

Far-fetched? Possibly. But don’t rule it out. Something like it has been in the works for more than a century, that is, since the ascendancy of Woodrow Wilson, champion of rule by “elites”.

“Hurricane Hysteria” and “Climate Hysteria”, Updated

In view of the persistent claims about the role of “climate change” as the cause of tropical cyclone activity (i.e, tropical storms and hurricanes) I have updated “Hurricane Hysteria“. The bottom line remains the same: Global measures of accumulated cyclone energy (ACE) do not support the view that there is a correlation between “climate change” and tropical cyclone activity.

I have also updated “Climate Hysteria“, which borrows from “Hurricane Hysteria” but also examines climate patterns in Austin, Texas, where our local weather nazi peddles his “climate change” balderdash.

One Kind of Deep-Stater

I correspond with a fellow whom I’ve known for almost 50 years. He’s a pleasant person with a good sense of humor and an easy-going personality (which masks dogged determination). His career as a defense analyst lasted for 40 years, the final 20 years of which were spent as a senior civil servant in the U.S. government. He was considered for a deputy-assistant secretaryship but didn’t get the post.

I suspect that there are many like him in the active ranks of the civil service: senior civil servants who have risen to the level of being considered for — and sometimes getting — deputy-assistant secretaryships. They are mainstays of the deep state. They know where all the bodies are buried, and — being denizens of the D.C. area and mostly Democrats — they tend to push the agenda of Democrat administrations even when there’s a Republican in the White House. When it isn’t prudent to actively push the agenda of a former Democrat president, it is quite possible to obstruct a sitting Republican president’s agenda.

In that regard, my correspondent has several traits which I suspect are not uncommon among senior civil servants: nostalgically loyal to those served and respected in the past; intelligent but not creative; resistant to change; polite in the nth degree; offended by crudeness; and eager to seem agreeable to those around him.

Members of that species are quite capable of dragging their feet (needing more time, more information, more staff) in order to derail or delay the furtherance of policies that they find too “radical”. They redouble their efforts if they have bosses whom they consider too bold, brash, or crude — or simply bent on rocking a boat that needn’t be rocked (which is most of time). They are able do such things while seeming to be ideal civil servants: dedicated to the agency’s mission, subservient to their current bosses, organized and hard-working, and never (openly) pursuing an agenda other than the one (officially) before them.

Such behavior is so natural to them that they don’t consider themselves obstructionists, and aren’t detectable as such. They are therefore all the more effective as operatives of the deep state.

I want to make it perfectly clear that I am not saying my correspondent would do such things, just that he represents a type that is capable of such things. Consider it a passing thought, for what it may be worth.

The Shallowness of Secular Ethical Systems

This post is prompted by a recent offering from Irfan Khawaja, who styles himself an ex-libertarian and tries to explain his apostasy. Khawaja abandoned libertarianism (or his version of it) because it implies a stance toward government spending that isn’t consistent with the desideratum of another ethical system.

Rather than get bogged down in the details of Khawaja’s dilemma, I will merely point out what should be obvious to him (and to millions of other true believers in this or that ethical system): Any system that optimizes on a particular desideratum (e.g., minimal coercion, maximum “social” welfare by some standard) will clash with at least one other system that optimizes a different desideratum.

Further, the various desiderata usually are overly broad. And when the desiderata are defined narrowly, what emerges is not a single, refined desideratum but two or more. Which means that there are more ethical systems and more opportunities for clashes between systems. Those clashes sometimes occur between systems that claim to optimize on the same (broad) desideratum. (I will later take up an example.)

What are the broad and refined desiderata of various ethical systems? The following list is a start, though it is surely incomplete:

  • Liberty

Freedom from all restraint

Freedom from governmental restraint

Freedom to do as one chooses, consistent with traditional social norms (some of which may be enforced by government)

Freedom to do as one chooses, regardless of one’s endowment of intelligence, talent, effort, wealth, etc.

  • Equality

Equal treatment under the law

Economic equality, regardless of one’s intelligence, talent, effort, wealth, etc.

Economic and social equality, regardless of one’s intelligence, talent, effort, wealth, etc.

  • Democracy

Participation in governmental decisions through the election of officials whose powers are limited to those deemed necessary to provide for the defense of innocent citizens from force and fraud

Participation in governmental decisions through the election of officials who have the power to bring about economic and social equality

Governmental outcomes that enact the “will of the people” (i.e., the desiderata of each group that propounds this kind of democracy)

  • Human welfare

The maximization of the sum of all human happiness, perhaps with some lower limit on the amount of happiness enjoyed by those least able to provide for themselves

The maximization of the sum of all human happiness, as above, but only with respect to specific phenomena viewed as threats (e.g., “climate change”, “overpopulation”, resource depletion)

  • Animal welfare (including but far from limited to human welfare)

Special protections for animals to prevent their mistreatment

Legal recognition of animals (or some of them) as “persons” with the same legal rights as human beings

No use of animals to satisfy human wants (e.g., food, clothing, shelter)

It would be pedantic of me to explain the many irreconcilable clashes between the main headings, between the subsidiary interpretations under each main heading, and between the subsidiary interpretations under the various main headings. They should be obvious to you.

But I will show that even a subsidiary interpretation of a broad desideratum can be rife with internal inconsistencies. Bear with me while I entertain you with a few examples, based on Khawaja’s dilemma — the conflict between his versions of welfarism and libertarianism.

Welfarism, according to Khawaja, means that a government policy, or a change in government policy, should result in no net loss of lives. This implies that that it is all right if X lives are lost, as long as Y lives are gained, where Y is greater than X. Which is utilitarianism on steroids — or, in the words of Jeremy Bentham (the godfather of utilitarianism), nonsense upon stilts (Bentham’s summary dismissal of the doctrine of natural rights). To see why, consider that the blogger’s desideratum could be accomplished by a ruthless dictator who kills people by the millions, while requiring those spared to procreate at a rate much higher than normal. Nirvana (not!).

A broader approach to welfare, and one that is more commonly adopted, is an appeal to the (fictional) social-welfare function. I have written about it many times. All I need do here, by way of dismissal, is to summarize it metaphorically: Sam obtains great pleasure from harming other people. And if Sam punches Joe in the nose, humanity is better off (that is, social welfare is increased) if Sam’s pleasure exceeds Joe’s pain. It should take you a nanosecond to understand why that is nonsense upon stilts.

In case it took you longer than a nanosecond, here’s the nonsense: How does one measure the pleasure and pain of disparate persons? How does one then sum those (impossible) measurements?

More prosaically: If you are Joe, and not a masochist, do you really believe that Sam’s pleasure somehow cancels your pain or compensates for it in the grand scheme of things? Do you really believe that there is a scoreboard in the sky that keeps track of such things? If your answer to both questions is “no”, you should ask yourself what gives anyone the wisdom to decree that Sam’s punch causes an increase in social welfare. The philosopher’s PhD? You were punched in the nose. You know that Sam’s pleasure doesn’t cancel or compensate for your pain. The philosopher (or politician or economist) who claims (or implies) that there is a social-welfare function is either a fool (the philosopher or economist) or a charlatan (the politician).

I turn now to libertarianism, which almost defies analysis because of its manifold variations and internal contradictions (some of which I will illustrate). But Khawaja’s account of it as a prohibition on the initiation of force (the non-aggression principle, a.k.a. the harm principle) is a good entry point. It is clear that Khawaja understands force to include government coercion of taxpayers to fund government programs. That’s an easy one for most libertarians, but Khawaja balks because the prohibition of government coercion might mean the curtailment of government programs that save lives. (Khawaja thus reveals himself to have been a consequentialist libertarian, that is, one who favors liberty because of its expected results, not necessarily because it represents a moral imperative. This is yet another fault line within libertarianism, but I won’t explore it here.)

Khawaja cites the example of a National Institutes of Health (NIH) program that might cure cystic fibrosis or alleviate its symptoms. But Khawaja neglects the crucial matter of opportunity cost (a strange omission for a consequentialist). Those whose taxes fund government programs usually aren’t those who benefit from them. Taxpayers have other uses for their money, including investments in scientific and technological advances that improve and lengthen life. The NIH (for one) has no monopoly on life-saving and life-enhancing research. To put it succinctly, Khawaja has fallen into the intellectual trap described by Frédéric Bastiat, which is to focus on that which is seen (the particular benefits of government programs) and to ignore the unseen (the things that could be done instead through private action, including — not trivially — the satisfaction of personal wants). When the problem is viewed in that way, most libertarians would scoff at Khawaja’s narrow view of libertarianism.

Here’s a tougher issue for libertarians (the extreme pacifists among them excluded): Does the prohibition on the initiation of force extend to preemptive self-defense against an armed thug who is clearly bent on doing harm? If it does, then libertarianism is unadulterated hogwash.

Let’s grant that libertarianism allows for preemptive self-defense, where the potential victim (or his agent) is at liberty to decide whether preemption is warranted by the threat. Let’s grant, further, that the right of preemptive self-defense includes the right to be prepared for self-defense, because there is always the possibility of a sudden attack by a thug, armed robber, or deranged person. Thus the right to bear arms at all times, and in all places should be unrestricted (unabridged, in the language of the Second Amendment).

Along comes Nervous Nellie, who claims that the sight of all of those armed people around her makes her fear for her life. But instead of arming herself, Nellie petitions government for the confiscation of all firearms from private persons. The granting of Nellie’s petition would constrain the ability of others to defend themselves against (a) private persons who hide their firearms successfully; (b) private persons who resort to other lethal means of attacking other persons, and (c) armed government agents who abuse their power.

The resulting dilemma can’t be resolved by appeal to the non-aggression principle. The principle is violated if the right of self-defense is violated, and (some would argue) it is also violated if Nellie lives in fear for her life because the right of self-defense is upheld.

Moreover, the ability of government to decide whether persons may be armed — indeed, the very existence of government — violates the non-aggression principle. But without government the non-aggression principle may be violated more often.

Thus we see more conflicts, all of which take place wholly within the confines of libertarianism, broadly understood.

The examples could go on an on, but enough is enough. The point is that ethical systems that seek to optimize on a single desideratum, however refined and qualified it might be, inevitably clash with other ethical systems. Those clashes illustrate Kurt Gödel‘s incompleteness theorems:

Gödel’s incompleteness theorems are two theorems of mathematical logic that demonstrate the inherent limitations of every formal axiomatic system capable of modelling basic arithmetic….

The first incompleteness theorem states that no consistent system of axioms whose theorems can be listed by an effective procedure (i.e., an algorithm) is capable of proving all truths about the arithmetic of natural numbers. For any such consistent formal system, there will always be statements about natural numbers that are true, but that are unprovable within the system. The second incompleteness theorem, an extension of the first, shows that the system cannot demonstrate its own consistency.

There is the view that Gödel’s theorems aren’t applicable in fields outside of mathematical logic. But any quest for ethical certainties necessarily involves logic, however flawed it might be.

Persons who devise and purvey ethical systems, assuming their good intentions (often a bad assumption), are simply fixated on particular aspects of human behavior rather than taking it whole. (They cannot see the forest because they are crawling on the ground, inspecting tree roots.)

Given such myopia, you might wonder how humanity manages to coexist cooperatively and peacefully as much as it does. Yes, there are many places on the globe where conflict is occasioned by what could be called differences of opinion about ultimate desiderata (including religious ones). But most human beings (though a shrinking majority, I fear) don’t give a hoot about optimizing on a particular desideratum. That is to say, most human beings aren’t fanatical about a particular cause or belief. And even when they are, they mostly live among like persons or keep their views to themselves and do at least the minimum that is required to live in peace with those around them.

It is the same for persons who are less fixated (or not at all) on a particular cause or belief. Daily life, with its challenges and occasional pleasures, is enough for them. In the United States, at least, fanaticism seems to be confined mainly to capitalism’s spoiled children (of all ages), whether they be ultra-rich “socialists”, affluent never-Trumpers, faux-scientists and their acolytes who foresee a climatic apocalypse, subsidized students (e.g., this lot), and multitudes of other arrant knights (and dames) errant.

Atheists are fond of saying that religion is evil because it spawns hatred and violence. Such sentiments would be met with bitter laughter from the hundreds of millions of victims of atheistic communism, were not most of them dead or still captive to the ethical system known variously as socialism and communism, which promises social and economic equality but delivers social repression and economic want. Religion (in the West, at least) is a key facet of liberty.

Which brings me to the point of this essay. When I use “liberty” I don’t mean the sterile desideratum of so-called libertarians (who can’t agree among themselves about its meaning or prerequisites). What I mean is the mundane business of living among others, getting along with them (or ignoring them, if that proves best), treating them with respect or forbearance, and observing the norms of behavior that will cause them to treat you with respect or forbearance.

It is that — and not the fanatical (unto hysterical) rallying around the various desiderata of cramped ethical systems — which makes for social comity and economic progress. The problem with silver bullets (Dr. Ehrlich’s “magic” one being a notable exception) is that they ricochet, causing more harm than good — often nothing but harm, even to those whom they are meant to help.


Related pages and posts:

Climate Change
Economic Growth Since World War II
Leftism
Modeling and Science
Social Norms and Liberty

On Liberty
Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare
Democracy and Liberty
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
Fascism and the Future of America
The Indivisibility of Economic and Social Liberty
Tocqueville’s Prescience
Accountants of the Soul
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
Bounded Liberty: A Thought Experiment
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
More Pseudo-Libertarianism
The Meaning of Liberty
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
Facets of Liberty
Burkean Libertarianism
What Is Libertarianism?
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Utilitarianism and Psychopathy
Why Conservatism Works
The Eclipse of “Old America”
Genetic Kinship and Society
Liberty as a Social Construct: Moral Relativism?
Defending Liberty against (Pseudo) Libertarians
Defining Liberty
The Pseudo-Libertarian Temperament
Modern Liberalism as Wishful Thinking
Getting Liberty Wrong
Romanticizing the State
Libertarianism and the State
My View of Libertarianism
The Principles of Actionable Harm
More About Social Norms and Liberty
Superiority
The War on Conservatism
Old America, New America, and Anarchy
The Authoritarianism of Modern Liberalism, and the Conservative Antidote
Society, Polarization, and Dissent
Social Justice vs. Liberty
The Left and “the People”
The Harm Principle Revisited: Mill Conflates Society and State
Liberty and Social Norms Re-examined
Natural Law, Natural Rights, and the Real World
Natural Law and Natural Rights Revisited
Libertarianism, Conservatism, and Political Correctness
My View of Mill, Endorsed
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and Leviathan
Suicide or Destiny?
O.J.’s Glove and the Enlightenment
James Burnham’s Misplaced Optimism
True Populism
Libertarianism’s Fatal Flaw
The Golden Rule and Social Norms
The Left-Libertarian Axis
Rooted in the Real World of Real People
Consequentialism
Conservatism, Society, and the End of America
Conservatism vs. Leftism and “Libertarianism” on the Moral Dimension
Free Markets and Democracy
“Libertarianism”, the Autism Spectrum, and Ayn Rand
Tragic Capitalism
A Paradox for Liberals
Rawls vs. Reality
The Subtle Authoritarianism of the “Liberal Order”
Liberty: Constitutional Obligations and the Role of Religion
Society, Culture, and America’s Future

Society, Culture, and America’s Future

There is much lamentation (from the right, at least) about the disintegration of American society, the culture war being waged by the left, and the future of America. I have done more than my share of lamenting. The purpose of this post isn’t to increase this blog’s lamentation quotient (though it probably will do that), but to take a step back and consider the meanings of “society” and “culture” as they apply to America. After having done that, I will consider the implications for the future of America.

Society and culture are intertwined. Society is usually defined as

an enduring and cooperating social group whose members have developed organized patterns of relationships through interaction with one another.

Culture is the collection of customs, rituals, and norms (religious and secular) that give a society its identity, and the observance of which marks individual persons as members of that society; thus:

Culture is the protection and nurturing of an identity that marks out how a given group (national, racial, social or whatever) ritualizes and cultivates its identity, gives it form and significance, and defines individuals as members of that group. Culture is not about what we do but the manner in which we do it and how a group defines itself by embellishing the gifts of nature.

Changes in society lead to changes in culture, and conversely. A good example, but hardly the only one of its kind, is Hitler’s exploitation of aspects of traditional German culture to build unblinking allegiance to Germany and to its leader (führer). The trait of fastidiousness was exploited to support the removal of “unclean” elements: Communists, Jews, Gypsys, and persons with mental and physical defects.

Societies and cultures in America can be likened to its topography. There are mountains, hills, rolling countryside, and flat land. The difference between a huge mountain and a somewhat smaller one is imperceptible — they are both mountains. But at some arbitrary point, a hump on the surface of the earth is called a hill instead of a mountain. This regression continues until hills are replaced by rolling countryside, and rolling countryside is replaced by flat land. There are no definite lines of demarcation between these various features, but the viewer usually knows which of them he is looking at.

Thus a person can tell the difference between a society-cum-culture that consists of impoverished inner-city blacks and one that revolves around a posh, all-white enclave. There are gradations between the two, and myriad overlapping memberships among those gradations, but the two are as distinct as the Rocky Mountains and the flatness of Florida.

Between the extremes, there are, of course, some distinct societal-cultural groupings; for example: Orthodox Jewish sects, Amish and Mennonite settlements, intellectually and culturally insular academic archipelagos, the remnants of enclaves formed by immigrants from Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and communities of later immigrants from Asia and Central America. But — to sustain the metaphor — America for a long time had been mainly flat land, which spanned not only the earliest (non-Indian) settlers and their descendants but also most of the descendants of the European immigrants.

To change the metaphor, the societal and cultural landscape of America was for a very long time largely amorphous, which was a blessing and a curse. It was a blessing because the interchangeability of the units meant that the divisions between them weren’t as deep as those between, say, Israel and Palestine, Northern Ireland and Eire (before the Republic went secular), the Basques and their neighbors, or the Kurds and the Turks. (The Civil War and its long aftermath of regional antipathy wouldn’t have happened but for the rabble-rousing rhetoric of pro-slavery and anti-slavery elites.)

The curse was that the growth of mass media (movies, radio, TV) and the advent of social media enabled rapid cultural change — change that hadn’t been tested in the acid of use and adopted because it made life better. It was change for the sake of change, which is a luxury afforded the beneficiaries of capitalism.

Take “noise”, for example — and by “noise” I mean sound, light, and motion — usually in combination. There are pockets of serenity to be sure, but the amorphous majority wallows in noise: in homes with blaring TVs; in stores, bars, clubs, and restaurants with blaring music, TVs, and light displays; in movies (which seem to be dominated by explosive computer graphics), in sports arenas (from Olympic and major-league venues down to minor-league venues, universities, and schools); and on an on.

I remember well the days before incessant noise. It wasn’t just that the electro-mechanical sources of noise were far less prevalent in those days, it was also that people simply weren’t as noisy (or demonstrative).

The prevalence of noise is telling evidence of the role of mass media in cultural change. Where culture is “thin” (the vestiges of the past have worn away) it is susceptible of outside influence. And where culture is thin, the edges of society are indistinct — one flows seamlessly into another. Thus the ease with which huge swaths of the amorphous majority were seduced, not just by noise but by leftist propaganda. The seduction was aided greatly by the parallel, taxpayer-funded efforts of public-school “educators” and the professoriate.

Thus did the amorphous majority bifurcate. (I locate the beginning of the bifurcation in the 1960s.) Those who haven’t been seduced by leftist propaganda have instead become resistant to it. This resistance to nanny-statism — the real resistance in America — seems to be anchored by members of that rapidly dwindling lot: adherents and practitioners of religion, especially between the two Left Coasts.

That they are also adherents of traditional social norms (e.g., marriage can only be between a man and a woman), upholders of the Second Amendment, and (largely) “blue collar” makes them a target of sneering (e.g., Barack Obama who called them “bitter clingers”; Hillary Clinton called them “deplorables”). That kind of sneering is a a socially divisive form of superiority-signaling, a result of which was the election of Donald Trump in 2016.

As the faux-resistance against Trump continues, for reasons detailed here, the wedge between the two halves of the once-amorphous mass is driven deeper by the clamor. Continued sneering would add impetus, but vote-hungry Democrats have (for now) curtailed it (and even made populist noises) in the hope of luring some malleable voters to the dark side if the impeachment plot fails.

But the end of the faux-resistance — one way or another — will not reunite the once-amorphous mass. The sneering, which persists on the dark side, will continue. Legislative, executive, and judicial efforts to impose the left’s agenda on the whole of America will persist. Despite all of that the real resistance might even despite the inevitable conversions to the dark side among the weak-willed. Or it might not, for a reason to which I will come.

The real resistance, it should be noted, pre-dates Trump’s emergence onto the political scene, and could be seen in the candidacies of Barry Goldwater and George Wallace. The real resistance finally made itself felt, electorally, by putting Ronald Reagan into the White House, though his efforts to roll back nanny-statism were hampered by a solid Democrat majority in the House. There was more success later, during the Tea Party era, which enabled congressional resistance to Obama’s leftist agenda. And then, just when the Tea Party movement seemed to have faded away, Trump revived it — in spirit if not in name.

The question is whether a new leader will emerge to ensure the continuation of the real resistance after Trump — whether he leaves the scene by impeachment and conviction, by failure of re-election, or at the end of a second term.

The answer is that as long as sizeable portion of the populace remains attached to traditional norms — mainly including religion — there will be a movement in search of and in need of a leader. But the movement will lose potency if such a leader fails to emerge.

Were that to happen, something like the old, amorphous society might re-form, but along lines that the remnant of the old, amorphous society wouldn’t recognize. In a reprise of the Third Reich, the freedoms of association, speech, and religious would have been bulldozed with such force that only the hardiest of souls would resist going over to the dark side. And their resistance would have to be covert.

Paradoxically, 1984 may lie in the not-too-distant future, not 35 years in the past. When the nation is ruled by one party (guess which one), footvoting will no longer be possible and the nation will settle into a darker version of the Californian dystopia.

Gillette and Me

My first and last Gillette razor looked like this one:

It was a hand-me-down from my father, and I used it (and Gillette’s double-edged blades) for about a decade. I then — more than 50 years ago — switched to a  Schick injector razor. I went through a few of those before I found an off-brand razor-mirror combination for shaving in the shower. I’ve been using it for more than 30 years.

The blades that came with the shower-shaving razor were a knock-off of Gillette’s Trac II. I’ve bought nothing but similar knock-offs since then. So, apart from a pittance in licensing fees (and maybe not even that), Gillette hasn’t made a dime from me in more than 50 years.

That makes me glad because of Gillette’s toxic wokeness, about which Harry Stein writes in the Autumn 2019 issue of City Journal:

If, as we’re often told, corporations aren’t people, Gillette recently did a good job of impersonating one — specifically, an over-the-top campus feminist — with an ad declaring its customers’ defining trait, masculinity, “toxic.” Featuring bullies, sexual harassers, and sociopaths without porfolio, the ad flipped Gillette’s usual tagline to ask: “Is this the best a man can get?” And soon, a Facebook ad followed showing — wait for it — a dad helping his transgender teen shave for the first time.

I missed that because I don’t watch commercial TV, other than 5 minutes a day to catch the local weather forecast (which is a habit but certainly not a necessity these days). It’s a good thing I missed it, or I might have ruined a good TV set by throwing a brick at it.

The good news, according to Stein, is that because of the strongly negative reaction of Gillette’s customers to the “woke” ad campaign, Gillette’s parent company, Procter & Gamble, had written Gillette down by $8 billion this past summer. I would have been among the many consumers who boycotted Gillette products and caused the write-down. But I presciently abandoned Gillette more than 50 years ago.

Liberty: Constitutional Obligations and the Role of Religion

Fifteen years ago I opined that the Constitution levied the following implicit obligations on citizens:

  • Obey the law, generally
  • Pay taxes
  • Accept the money of the United States as legal tender
  • Respect patents, copyrights, and other recognized forms of intellectual property
  • Refrain from rebellion and insurrection
  • Serve in the armed forces (if the law requires it)
  • Refrain from committing treason
  • Serve on juries
  • Do not take anyone into slavery or involuntary servitude.

A jejune libertarian, Timothy Sandefur, objected:

On what grounds does the Constitution assign these obligations? What moral right does it have to impose these upon us?

The Constitution, as a document, can’t have a “moral right”. But let us suppose that what Sandefur really meant to ask was “what moral right did the Framers of the Constitution have to imposed these obligations on us?”. The answer is “none”, for reasons to which I will come. But that doesn’t prevent the Constitution from binding Americans — either by consent or coercion.

Given the inevitability of the state (anarchism is a fantasy), the real issue is not the Framers’ (nonexistent) moral right but the advantages of living under the Constitution (as written) rather than the many inferior alternatives that abound in the world (including living under the Constitution as it has been ignored and misinterpreted).

Which brings me to a basic and widely flouted obligation that the Constitution imposes, namely to preserve, protect, and defend it. More properly, to preserve, protect, and defend the way of life that the Constitution presupposes.

I make the latter point because I was reminded of it by a passage in “A Genuinely Transgressive Act: On the Dedication of Christ Chapel at Hillsdale College” (The New Criterion, November 2019). In his dedicatory remarks, Justice Clarence Thomas

quoted John Adams’s address to the Massachusetts militia in 1798: “our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Thomas underscored the critical point, one that is missing from most lamentations about the failures of the educational establishment. “The preservation of liberty,” he said in his peroration, “is not guaranteed. Without the guardrails supplied by religious conviction, popular sovereignty can devolve into mob rule, unmoored from any conception of objective truth.”

To elaborate (and borrowing from an old post of mine), libertarians (like Sandefur) claim that libertarianism is a moral code, when it is in fact destructive of the kind of morality that binds a people in mutual trust and mutual forbearance. These depend on the observance of actual codes of conduct, not the rote repetition of John Stuart Mill’s empty “harm principle”.

It is my view that libertarians who behave morally toward others do so not because they are libertarians but because their cultural inheritance includes traces of Judeo-Christian ethics. For example, the non-aggression principle — a foundation of libertarian philosophy — is but a dim reflection of the Ten Commandments.

As Jennifer Roback Morse and Friedrich Hayek rightly argue (here and here), a libertarian order can be sustained only if it is built on deeply ingrained morality. But that morality can only operate if it is not circumscribed and undermined by the edicts of the state. The less intrusive the state, the more essential are social norms to the conditions of liberty. If those norms wither away, the results — more rapaciousness, heedlessness, and indolence — invite the the growth of the state and its adoption of repressive policies.

The flimsy morality of today’s libertarianism will not do. Neither the minimal state of “mainstream” libertarians nor the stateless Utopia of extreme libertarians can ensure a moral society, that is, one in which there is mutual trust, mutual forbearance, and promise-keeping.

Where, then, is moral education to be had? In the public schools, whose unionized teachers preach the virtues of moral relativism, big government, income redistribution, and non-judgmentalism (i.e., lack of personal responsibility)? I hardly think so.

That leaves religion, especially religion in the Judeo-Christian tradition. As the Catholic Encyclopedia puts it:

The precepts [of the last six of the Commandments] are meant to protect man in his natural rights against the injustice of his fellows.

  • His life is the object of the Fifth;
  • the honour of his body as well as the source of life, of the Sixth;
  • his lawful possessions, of the Seventh;
  • his good name, of the Eighth;
  • And in order to make him still more secure in the enjoyment of his rights, it is declared an offense against God to desire to wrong him, in his family rights by the Ninth;
  • and in his property rights by the Tenth.

Though I am a deist, I would gladly live in a society in which the majority of my fellow citizens believed in and adhered to the Ten Commandments, especially the last six of them. I reject the currently fashionable notion that religion per se breeds violence. In fact, a scholarly, non-sectarian meta-study, “Religion and its effects on crime and delinquency” (Medical Science Monitor, 2003; 9(8):SR79-82), offers good evidence that religiosity leads to good behavior:

[N]early all [reports] found that that there was a significant negative correlation between religiosity and delinquency. This was further substantiated by studies using longitudinal and operationally reliable definitions. Of the early reports which were either inconclusive or found no statistical correlation, not one utilized a multidimensional definition or any sort of reliability factor. We maintain that the cause of this difference in findings stemmed from methodological factors as well as different and perhaps flawed research strategies that were employed by early sociological and criminological researchers.The studies that we reviewed were of high research caliber and showed that the inverse relationship [between religiosity and delinquency] does in fact exist. It therefore appears that religion is both a short term and long term mitigat[o]r of delinquency.

But a society in which behavior is guided by the Ten Commandments seems to be receding into the past. As one headline puts it, “In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace“. And the degree of religious belief probably is overstated because respondents tend to say the “right” thing, which (oddly enough) continues to be a profession of religious faith (in the hinterlands, at least).

Historian Niall Ferguson, a Briton, writes about the importance of religiosity in “Heaven Knows How We’ll Rekindle Our Religion, but I Believe We Must” (July 31, 2005):

I am not sure British people are necessarily afraid of religion, but they are certainly not much interested in it these days. Indeed, the decline of Christianity — not just in Britain but across Europe — stands out as one of the most remarkable phenomena of our times.

There was a time when Europe would justly refer to itself as “Christendom.” Europeans built the Continent’s loveliest edifices to accommodate their acts of worship. They quarreled bitterly over the distinction between transubstantiation and consubstantiation. As pilgrims, missionaries and conquistadors, they sailed to the four corners of the Earth, intent on converting the heathen to the true faith.

Now it is Europeans who are the heathens. . . .

The exceptionally low level of British religiosity was perhaps the most striking revelation of a recent … poll. One in five Britons claim to “attend an organized religious service regularly,” less than half the American figure. [In light of the relationship between claimed and actual church attendance, discussed above, the actual figure for Britons is probably about 10 percent: ED.] Little more than a quarter say that they pray regularly, compared with two-thirds of Americans and 95 percent of Nigerians. And barely one in 10 Britons would be willing to die for our God or our beliefs, compared with 71 percent of Americans. . . .

Chesterton feared that if Christianity declined, “superstition” would “drown all your old rationalism and skepticism.” When educated friends tell me that they have invited a shaman to investigate their new house for bad juju, I see what Chesterton meant. Yet it is not the spread of such mumbo-jumbo that concerns me as much as the moral vacuum that de-Christianization has created. Sure, sermons are sometimes dull and congregations often sing out of tune. But, if nothing else, a weekly dose of Christian doctrine helps to provide an ethical framework for life. And it is not clear where else such a thing is available in modern Europe.

…Britons have heard a great deal from Tony Blair and others about the threat posed to their “way of life” by Muslim extremists such as Muktar Said Ibrahim. But how far has their own loss of religious faith turned Britain into a soft target — not so much for the superstition Chesterton feared, but for the fanaticism of others?

Yes, what “way of life” is being threatened — and is therefore deemed worth defending — when people do not share a strong moral bond?

I cannot resist adding one more quotation in the same vein as those from Hayek and Ferguson. This comes from Theodore Dalrymple (Anthony Daniels), a no-nonsense psychiatrist who, among his many intellectual accomplishments, has thoroughly skewered John Stuart Mill’s fatuous essay, On Liberty. Without further ado, here is Dalrymple on religion (“Why Religion Is Good for Us”, New Statesman, April 21, 2003):

I remember the day I stopped believing in God. I was ten years old and it was in school assembly. It was generally acknowledged that if you opened your eyes while praying, God flew out of the nearest window. That was why it was so important that everyone should shut his eyes. If I opened my eyes suddenly, I thought, I might just be quick enough to catch a glimpse of the departing deity….

Over the years, my attitude to religion has changed, without my having recovered any kind of belief in God. The best and most devoted people I have ever met were Catholic nuns. Religious belief is seldom accompanied by the inflamed egotism that is so marked and deeply unattractive a phenomenon in our post-religious society. Although the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions are said to have given man a more accurate appreciation of his true place in nature, in fact they have rendered him not so much anthropocentric as individually self-centred….

[T]he religious idea of compassion is greatly superior, both morally and practically, to the secular one. The secular person believes that compassion is due to the victim by virtue of what he has suffered; the religious person believes that compassion is due to everyone, by virtue of his humanity. For the secular person, man is born good and is made bad by his circumstances. The religious person believes man is born with original sin, and is therefore imperfectible on this earth; he can nevertheless strive for the good by obedience to God.

The secularist divides humanity into two: the victims and the victimisers. The religious person sees mankind as fundamentally one.

And why not? If this life is all that you have, why let anything stand in the way of its enjoyment? Most of us self-importantly imagine that the world and all its contrivances were made expressly for us and our convenience….

The secularist de-moralises the world, thus increasing the vulnerability of potential victims and, not coincidentally, their need for a professional apparatus of protection, which is and always will be ineffective, and is therefore fundamentally corrupt and corrupting.

If a person is not a victim pure and simple, the secularist feels he is owed no compassion. A person who is to blame for his own situation should not darken the secularist’s door again: therefore, the secularist is obliged to pretend, with all the rationalisation available to modern intellectuals, that people who get themselves into a terrible mess – for example, drug addicts – are not to blame for their situation. But this does them no good at all; in fact it is a great disservice to them.

The religious person, by contrast, is unembarrassed by the moral failings that lead people to act self-destructively because that is precisely what he knows man has been like since the expulsion from Eden. Because he knows that man is weak, and has no need to disguise his failings, either from himself or from others, he can be honest in a way that the secularist finds impossible.

Though I am not religious, I have come to the conclusion that it is impossible for us to live decently without the aid of religion. That is the ambiguity of the Enlightenment.

The weakening of the Judeo-Christian tradition in America is owed to enemies within (established religions trying in vain to be “relevant”) and to enemies without (leftists and nihilistic libertarians who seek every opportunity to denigrate religion). Thus the opponents of religiosity seized on the homosexual scandals in the Catholic Church not to attack homosexuality (which would go against the attackers’ party line) but to attack the Church, which teaches the immorality of the acts that were in fact committed by a relatively small number of priests.

Then there is the relentless depiction of Catholicism as an accomplice to Hitler’s brutality, about which my son writes in his review of Rabbi David G. Dalin’s The Myth of Hitler’s Pope: How Pius XII Rescued Jews from the Nazis:

Despite the misleading nature of the controversy — one which Dalin questions from the outset — the first critics of the wartime papacy were not Jews. Among the worst attacks were those of leftist non-Jews, such as Carlo Falconi (author of The Silence of Pius XII), not to mention German liberal Rolf Hochhuth, whose 1963 play, The Deputy, set the tone for subsequent derogatory media portrayals of wartime Catholicism. By contrast, says Dalin, Pope Pius XII “was widely praised [during his lifetime] for having saved hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives during the Holocaust.” He provides an impressive list of Jews who testified on the pope’s behalf, including Albert Einstein, Golda Meir and Chaim Weizmann. Dalin believes that to “deny and delegitimize their collective memory and experience of the Holocaust,” as some have done, “is to engage in a subtle yet profound form of Holocaust denial.”

The most obvious source of the black legend about the papacy emanated from Communist Russia, a point noted by the author. There were others with an axe to grind. As revealed in a recent issue of Sandro Magister’s Chiesa, liberal French Catholic Emmanuel Mounier began implicating Pius XII in “racist” politics as early as 1939. Subsequent detractors have made the same charge, working (presumably) from the same bias.

While the immediate accusations against Pius XII lie at the heart of Dalin’s book, he takes his analysis a step further. The vilification of the pope can only be understood in terms of a political agenda — the “liberal culture war against tradition.” . . .

Rabbi Dalin sums it up best for all people of traditional moral and political beliefs when he urges us to recall the challenges that faced Pius XII in which the “fundamental threats to Jews came not from devoted Christians — they were the prime rescuers of Jewish lives in the Holocaust — but from anti-Catholic Nazis, atheistic Communists, and… Hitler’s mufti in Jerusalem.”

I believe that the incessant attacks on religion have helped to push people — especially young adults — away from religion, to the detriment of liberty. It is not surprising that “liberals”  tend to be anti-religious, for — as Dalrymple points out — they disdain the tenets of personal responsibility and liberty that are contained in the last six of the Ten Commandments. It is disheartening, however, when libertarians join the anti-religious chorus. They know not what they do when they join the left in tearing down a bulwark of civil society, without which liberty cannot prevail.

Humans need no education in aggression and meddling; those come to us naturally. But we do need to learn to take responsibility for our actions and to leave others alone — and we need to learn those things when we are young. Such things will not be taught in public schools. They could be taught in homes, but are less likely to be taught there as Americans drift further from their religious roots.

Am I being hypcritical because I am unchurched and my children were not taken to church? Perhaps, but my religious upbringing imbued in me a strong sense of morality, which I tried — successfully, I think — to convey to my children. But as time passes the moral lessons we older Americans learned through religion will attenuate unless those lessons are taught, anew, to younger generations.

Rather than join the left in attacking religion and striving to eradicate all traces of it from public discourse, those who claim to love liberty ought to accommodate themselves to it and even encourage its acceptance — for liberty’s sake.

Shaky Trade Talk

Political Calculations has posted “U.S.-China Trade Continues to Shrink in Tariff War“, which is an update of “Heavy Toll of US-China Tariff War Continues“.  Two graphs carry the burden of proof that the current tariff “war” is responsible for a “heavy toll” on U.S exports and the total value of trade between the U.S. (rather, entities therein) and China. My take is that the graphs don’t support the conclusions that the writer draws from them.

First:

Political calculations_export trend.jpg

 

The graph exemplifies the slippery practice of drawing trend lines and inferring the future from them. (See “What’s in a Trend?“.) The line labeled “pre-trade war linear trend” extrapolates from the 12-month moving average, but neglects the underlying cyclical pattern. Further, taking into account the cyclical pattern, one could make a case that the combined value of exports and imports began to level off in 2015 (during the Obama administration), and that there was a slight resurgence in 2018-2019, in spite of the “trade war”. A recent dip (to a higher level than preceding dips) was followed by a cyclical upturn that is firmly in the midpoint of a the range for 2015-2019.

Second:

Political calculations_trade trend

 

The writer says this about the second graph:

The carnage from the U.S-China tariff war continued through September 2019, where trade data for the month just released by the U.S. Census Bureau indicates year-over-year declines from September 2018’s tariff war-reduced figures.

The … chart captures that observation as measured by the year-over-year growth rate of the exchange-rate adjusted value of trade between the U.S. and China, where both China and the U.S. fall well within negative growth territory.

What I see is a long-term decline in the year-over-year growth rate, a decline that goes back at least 30 years. The only significant (and more negative) departure from the trend occurred during the Great Recession.

(See “Rethinking Free Trade III“, which repeats the main points of the first two installments.)

The Subtle Authoritarianism of the “Liberal Order”

There is a smug kind of person whom I know well, having been trained in the economics of control; having worked for more than thirty years with economists, engineers, mathematicians, statisticians, and others whose penchant it was to find the “best” solution to every problem; and having known (too many) “right thinking” persons whose first reaction to every disaster, sob story, and inconvenience is that government experts should make it stop (liberty, unintended consequences, and costs are of no importance).

A small sample of the smuggies’ certainties: “Efficient” means of transportation (e.g., fast intercity trains, urban light rail) should be provide by government (i.e., taxpayers) because they’re obviously the “best” way to move people, the revealed preferences of consumers (and voters) to the contrary notwithstanding. Cities should be zoned to encourage density (because, you know, cities are “cool”, “climate change”, yadayadyada), the preference of actual people (and evidence against “climate change”) to the contrary notwithstanding.

The list goes on and on. You can easily add to it even if you haven’t had your morning coffee.

The kind of smug person who holds such views holds them for many reasons: peer influence, virtue-signaling, educated incapacity, public-school and university indoctrination, and good old-fashioned snobbery (the “deplorables” must be made to do what’s in their own interest). Most such persons are also financially comfortable — too comfortable, obviously, because they seem to have nothing better to do with their money than to pay the higher taxes that inevitably result from their electoral choices: candidates who believe that government is the answer; bond issues and other ballot measures that enable politicians to spend more money to “fix” things. The less-comfortable contingent (e.g., school teachers and low-level government employees) go along to get along and because they must believe that government is good, just as a young child must believe in Santa Claus.

The agenda and constituency of the “liberal order” parallel those of the so-called liberal international order, which Sumantra Maitra addresses in a review article, “The End Times of the Liberal Order“? (Spectator USA, October 26, 2018):

A liberal order is not natural. Robert Kagan admits as much in his new bookThe Jungle Grows Back, when he writes that the ‘the creation of the liberal order has been an act of defiance against both history and human nature’. Nor is a liberal order an ‘order’, or liberal in nature. It is a sort of hegemonic or imperial peace.

Nothing wrong with that, of course; peace, any peace, is important. Unfortunately, it is the liberal part, which causes the problem. An internationalist, utopian worldview, liberalism is full of crusaderly zeal, constantly ‘going abroad in search of monsters to destroy’. Liberal internationalists badly want to shape the world. When given the chance, they do manage to shape the world, very badly indeed….

[John] Mearsheimer’s The Great Delusion claims that liberalism itself is paradoxical. It supports tolerance, but it is a universalist paradigm, deeply committed to borderless values. There cannot be any compromise or cooperation, because everything, everywhere is an existential battle. This causes conflict both at home and abroad. Domestically, liberalism divides a nation into good and bad people, and leads to a clash of cultures. Internationally, it leads to never-ending wars.

Encore: Domestically, liberalism divides a nation into good and bad people, and leads to a clash of cultures.

The clash of cultures was started and sustained by so-called liberals, the smug people described above. It is they who — firmly believing themselves to be smarter, on the the side of science, and on the side of history — have chosen to be the aggressors in the culture war.

Hillary Clinton’s remark about Trump’s “deplorables” ripped the mask from the “liberal” pretension to tolerance and reason. Clinton’s remark was tantamount to a declaration of war against the self-appointed champion of the “deplorables”: Donald Trump. And war it has been. much of it waged by deep-state “liberals” who cannot entertain the possibility that they are on the wrong side of history, and who will do anything — anything — to make history conform to their smug expectations of it.


Related reading:

Joel Kotkin, “Elites Against Western Civilization“, City Journal, October 3, 2019 (examples of the smug worldview, from a non-smug academic)

Victor Davis Hanson, “The Globalist Mindset: They Hate You“, American Greatness, December 16, 2018 (more, from another non-smug academic)

Victor Davis Hanson, “The Military-Intellegence Complex“, American Greatness, November 3, 2019 (even more)

Lyle H. Rossiter Jr., M.D. “The Liberal Mind: The Psychological Causes of Political Madness“, Townhall, December 4, 2006 (a psychiatrist’s diagnosis confirms mine)

Related pages and posts (focusing on various aspects of delusional “liberalism”):

Abortion Q & A
Climate Change
Economic Growth Since World War II (see especially The Rahn Curve in Action)
Leftism
Modeling and Science
Political Ideologies
Spygate (a.k.a. Russiagate)

Hurricane Hysteria
“Tribalists”, “Haters”, and Psychological Projection
“Science is Real”
“Liberalism”: Trying to Have It Both Ways
Understanding the Resistance: The Enemies Within
Intellectuals and Authoritarianism
More Unsettled Science
Homelessness
Leninthink and Left-Think
More Unsettled Science
Not-So-Random Thoughts (XXIV) (especially The Transgender Trap: A Political Nightmare Becomes Reality and Assortative Mating, Income Inequality, and the Crocodile Tears of “Progressives”)
Climate Hysteria
Rawls vs. Reality