Up from Darkness

I’m in the midst of writing a post about conservatism that will put a capstone on the many posts that I’ve written on the subject. It occurred to me that it might be helpful to understand why some conservatives (or people who thought of themselves as conservatives) abandoned the faith. I found “Do conservatives ever become liberal?” at Quora. None of the more than 100 replies is a good argument for switching, in my view. Most of them are whining, posturing, and erroneous characterizations of conservatism.

But the first reply struck home because it describes how a so-called conservative became a “liberal” in a matter of minutes. What that means, of course, is that the convert’s conservatism was superficial. (More about that in the promised post.) But the tale struck home because it reminded me of my own conversion, in the opposite direction, which began with a kind of “eureka” moment.

Here’s the story, from my “About” page:

I was apolitical until I went to college. There, under the tutelage of economists of the Keynesian persuasion, I became convinced that government could and should intervene in economic affairs. My pro-interventionism spread to social affairs in my early post-college years, as I joined the “intellectuals” of the time in their support for the Civil Rights Act and the Great Society, which was about social engineering as much as anything.

The urban riots that followed the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. opened my eyes to the futility of LBJ’s social tinkering. I saw at once that plowing vast sums into a “war” on black poverty would be rewarded with a lack of progress, sullen resentment, and generations of dependency on big brother in Washington.

There’s a lot more after that about my long journey home to conservatism, if you’re interested.

This Is Objectivism? Another Sequel

I see that The Objective Standard has posted a review of The Rediscovery of America: Essays by Harry V. Jaffa on the New Birth of Politics. The reviewer is ambivalent about the volume, which collects most of Jaffa‘s writings in the final two decades of his life (1918-2015):

Harry Jaffa was perhaps the most philosophically astute of all American conservatives. His books, though often flawed, were studded with thought-provoking insights….

At last, a new book, The Rediscovery of America, gathers his often dazzling, sometimes outrageous, valedictory writings.

What does the reviewer like about Jaffa’s valedictory writings? This:

Jaffa called himself a “gadfly” because he criticized his fellow conservatives, especially traditionalists such as Russell Kirk and Robert Bork, who, as Jaffa proved, actually surrendered the principles they purported to defend. His attacks on those he called “false prophets of American conservatism” often were harsh, because he wisely approached philosophical disputes with grave seriousness and because he believed they had embraced the same fatal thesis that modern liberals had: “there is no objective knowledge of, or rational ground for distinguishing good and bad, right and wrong, just and unjust” (101). This obliterated the only ground—reason—from which justice or liberty could be defended.

But:

Jaffa’s effort to defend reason and freedom … was handicapped by his defense of religion (which he vainly tried to portray as rational) and his homophobia—a word sometimes abused but appropriate for Jaffa, whose ferocity toward those he insisted on calling “sodomites” was grounded in an irrational fear that homosexuality represented the “repudiation” of “all morality”.

Nevertheless:

Despite these flaws, Rediscovery often is enlightening and instructive. Jaffa’s essays display an intellectual depth lamentably absent from today’s conservatism. And for all of his errors, his insistence that the truths of the Declaration are not historical artifacts but timeless principles worthy of defending will make his best work last forever.

I am struck by the reviewer’s totemic invocation of reason. It must be an Objectivist’s “thing”, because there is a similar invocation in the inaugural issue of The Objective Standard that was the subject of my earlier post, “This Is Objectivism?”:

We hold that reason—the faculty that operates by way of observation and logic—is man’s means of knowledge…. Reason is the means by which everyone learns about the world, himself, and his needs. Human knowledge—all human knowledge—is a product of perceptual observation and logical inference therefrom….

In short, man has a means of knowledge; it is reason—and reason alone. If people want to know what is true or good or right, they must observe reality and use logic.

Thus, to an Objectivist, reason — the application of logic to observations about the world — is the only source of knowledge, and Jaffa (usually) defended reason. Therefore, Jaffa was (mostly) correct in the views with which the reviewer agrees. An interesting mix of post hoc ergo propter hoc and circular reasoning.

Reason, of course, is subject to error — great error. Observations can be in error, or selected with the aim of reaching a particular (and erroneous) conclusion. The application of logic to observations usually means, in practice, the application of mathematical and statistical tools to understand the relationships between those observations, and to make falsifiable predictions based on those relationships. Even, then, the “knowledge” that arises from scientific reason is always provisional, unlike the certitudes of Objectivists.

As I wrote in “Objectivism: Tautologies in Search of Reality” (a sequel to “This Is Objectivism?):

Reason operates on perceptions and prejudices. To the extent that there are “real” facts, we filter and interpret them according to our prejudices. When it comes to that, Objectivists are no less prejudiced than anyone else….

Reason is an admirable and useful thing, but it does not ensure valid “knowledge,” right action, or survival. Some non-cognitive precepts — such as the “Golden Rule“, “praise the Lord and pass the ammunition”, and “talk softly but carry a big stick” — are indispensable guides to action which help to ensure the collective (joint) survival of those who observe them. Survival, in the real world (as opposed to the ideal world of Objectivism) depends very much on prejudice.

That is, human beings often rely on ingrained knowledge — instinct, if you will — which isn’t a product of “reason”.

That there is such knowledge seems to escape Objectivists. How can anyone possibly write with a straight face that “Human knowledge—all human knowledge—is a product of perceptual observation and logical inference therefrom”? It takes a rather strained view of logical inference to account for such things as the mating and suckling instincts (without which human life would end), or the squeamishness and disgust that helps people to avoid infectious diseases. But such things are human knowledge — essential human knowledge.

Objectivism is a cult. To be a member of the cult, one must not only invoke reason ritualistically, one must also profess atheism. The reviewer is an atheist, and it shows here:

Jaffa’s effort to defend reason and freedom … was handicapped by his defense of religion (which he vainly tried to portray as rational)….

An Objectivist will perform intellectual somersaults in the defense of atheism. This is from a post at the website of The Atlas Society, an Objectivist organization:

Objectivism holds that in order to obtain knowledge, man must use an objective process of thought. The essence of objective thought is, first, integration of perceptual data in accordance with logic and, second, a commitment to acknowledging all of the facts of reality, and only the facts. In other words, the only thoughts to consider when forming knowledge of reality are those logically derived from reality….

Agnosticism—as a general approach to knowledge—refuses to reject arbitrary propositions….

The primary problem for the agnostic is that he allows arbitrary claims to enter his cognitive context. The fully rational man, on the other hand, does not seek evidence to prove or disprove arbitrary claims, for he has no reason to believe that such claims are true in the first place….

[E]]ven if the notion of God were formulated in a testable, coherent manner, the claim that God exists would be no less arbitrary and would be equally unworthy of evaluation. The proposition was formed not on the basis of evidence (i.e., perceptual data integrated by logic)—it could have been formed only on the basis of imagination.

Wow!

In fact, the existence of the physical universe is “perceptual data”. And there is a logically valid argument to explain existence as the creation of a being who stands apart from it.

Whether or not one accepts the argument isn’t a matter of reason but a matter of faith. The mandatory atheism of Objectivism is therefore a matter of faith, not a product of reason.

As I say, it’s a cult.

(See also Theodore Dalrymple’s In Praise of Prejudice: The Necessity of Preconceived Ideas, which I have discussed at some length here; “Social Norms and Liberty” and the many posts listed therein; “Words Fail Us“, “Through a Glass Darkly“, and “Libertarianism, the Autism Spectrum, and Ayn Rand“.)

Intellectuals and Authoritarianism

In the preceding post I quoted the German political theorist, Carl Schmitt (1888-1985). The quotation is from a book published in 1926, seven years before Schmitt joined the Nazi Party. But Schmitt’s attraction to authoritarianism long predates his party membership. In 1921, according to Wikipedia,

Schmitt became a professor at the University of Greifswald, where he published his essay Die Diktatur (on dictatorship), in which he discussed the foundations of the newly established Weimar Republic, emphasising the office of the Reichspräsident. In this essay, Schmitt compared and contrasted what he saw as the effective and ineffective elements of the new constitution of his country. He saw the office of the president as a comparatively effective element, because of the power granted to the president to declare a state of exception (Ausnahmezustand). This power, which Schmitt discussed and implicitly praised as dictatorial,[21] was more in line with the underlying mentality of executive power than the comparatively slow and ineffective processes of legislative power reached through parliamentary discussion and compromise.

Shades of Woodrow Wilson, the holder of an earned doctorate and erstwhile academician who had recently been succeeded as president of the United States by Warren G. Harding. Wilson

believed the Constitution had a “radical defect” because it did not establish a branch of government that could “decide at once and with conclusive authority what shall be done.”…

He also wrote that charity efforts should be removed from the private domain and “made the imperative legal duty of the whole,” a position which, according to historian Robert M. Saunders, seemed to indicate that Wilson “was laying the groundwork for the modern welfare state.”

Another renowned German academic, the philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), also became a Nazi in 1933. Whereas Schmitt never expressed regret or doubts about his membership in the party. Heidegger did, though perhaps not sincerely:

In his postwar thinking, Heidegger distanced himself from Nazism, but his critical comments about Nazism seem “scandalous” to some since they tend to equate the Nazi war atrocities with other inhumane practices related to rationalisation and industrialisation, including the treatment of animals by factory farming. For instance in a lecture delivered at Bremen in 1949, Heidegger said: “Agriculture is now a motorized food industry, the same thing in its essence as the production of corpses in the gas chambers and the extermination camps, the same thing as blockades and the reduction of countries to famine, the same thing as the manufacture of hydrogen bombs.”…

In [a 1966 interview for Der Spiegel], Heidegger defended his entanglement with National Socialism in two ways: first, he argued that there was no alternative, saying that he was trying to save the university (and science in general) from being politicized and thus had to compromise with the Nazi administration. Second, he admitted that he saw an “awakening” (Aufbruch) which might help to find a “new national and social approach,” but said that he changed his mind about this in 1934, largely prompted by the violence of the Night of the Long Knives.

In his interview Heidegger defended as double-speak his 1935 lecture describing the “inner truth and greatness of this movement.” He affirmed that Nazi informants who observed his lectures would understand that by “movement” he meant National Socialism. However, Heidegger asserted that his dedicated students would know this statement was no eulogy for the Nazi Party. Rather, he meant it as he expressed it in the parenthetical clarification later added to Introduction to Metaphysics (1953), namely, “the confrontation of planetary technology and modern humanity.”

The eyewitness account of Löwith from 1940 contradicts the account given in the Der Spiegel interview in two ways: that he did not make any decisive break with National Socialism in 1934, and that Heidegger was willing to entertain more profound relations between his philosophy and political involvement.

Schmitt and Heidegger were far from the only German intellectuals who were attracted to Nazism, whether out of philosophical conviction or expediency. More to the point, as presaged by my inclusion of Woodrow Wilson’s views, Schmitt and Heidegger were and are far from the only intellectual advocates of authoritarianism. Every academic, of any nation, who propounds government action that usurps the functions of private institutions is an authoritarian, whether or not he admits it to himself. Whether they are servants of an overtly totalitarian regime, like Schmitt and Heidegger, or of a formally libertarian one, like Wilson, they are all authoritarians under the skin.

Why? Because intellectualism is essentially rationalism. As Michael Oakeshott explains, a rationalist

never doubts the power of his ‘reason … to determine the worth of a thing, the truth of an opinion or the propriety of an action. Moreover, he is fortified by a belief in a ‘reason’ common to all mankind, a common power of rational consideration….

… And having cut himself off from the traditional knowledge of his society, and denied the value of any education more extensive than a training in a technique of analysis, he is apt to attribute to mankind a necessary inexperience in all the critical moments of life, and if he were more self-critical he might begin to wonder how the race had ever succeeded in surviving. [“Rationalism in Politics,” pp. 5-7, as republished in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays]

If you have everything “figured out”, what is more natural than the desire to make it so? It takes a truly deep thinker to understand that everything can’t be “figured out”, and that rationalism is bunk. That is why intellectuals of the caliber of Oakeshott, Friederich Hayek, and Thomas Sowell are found so rarely in academia, and why jackboot-lickers like Paul Krugman abound.

(See also “Academic Bias“, “Intellectuals and Capitalism“,”Intellectuals and Society: A Review“, and “Rationalism, Empiricism, and Scientific Knowledge“.)

A Paradox for Liberals

Libertarianism is liberalism in the classic meaning of the term, given here by one Zack Beauchamp:

[L]iberalism refers to a school of thought that takes freedom, consent, and autonomy as foundational moral values. Liberals agree that it is generally wrong to coerce people, to seize control of their bodies or force them to act against their will….

Beauchamp, in the next paragraph, highlights the paradox inherent in liberalism:

Given that people will always disagree about politics, liberalism’s core aim is to create a generally acceptable mechanism for settling political disputes without undue coercion — to give everyone a say in government through fair procedures, so that citizens consent to the state’s authority even when they disagree with its decisions.

Which is to say that liberalism does entail coercion. Thus the paradox. (What is now called “liberalism” in America is so rife with coercion that only a person who is ignorant of the meaning of liberalism can call it that with a straight face.)

There is nothing new about this paradox, as far as I’m concerned. I wrote about it 14 years ago in “A Paradox for Libertarians“:

Libertarians, by definition, believe in the superiority of liberty: the negative right to be left alone — in one’s person, pursuits, and property — as long as one leaves others alone. Libertarians therefore believe in the illegitimacy of state-enforced values (e.g., income redistribution, censorship, punishment of “victimless” crimes) because they are inimical to liberty.

Some libertarians (minarchists, such as I) nevertheless believe in the necessity of a state, as long as the state’s role is restricted to the protection of liberty. Other libertarians (anarcho-capitalists) argue that the state itself is illegitimate because the existence of a state necessarily compromises liberty. I have dealt elsewhere with the anarcho-capitalist position, and have found it wanting. (See “But Wouldn’t Warlords Take Over?” and the posts linked to at the bottom of that post.)

Let’s nevertheless imagine a pure anarcho-capitalist society whose members agree voluntarily to leave each other alone. All social and economic transactions are voluntary. Contracts and disputes are enforced through arbitration, to which all parties agree to submit and by the results of which all parties agree to abide. A private agency enforces contractual obligations and adherence to the outcomes of arbitration. (You know that this anarcho-capitalist society is pure fantasy because a private agency with such power is a de facto state. And competing private agencies, each of which may represent a party to a dispute are de facto warlords. But I digress.)

Now, for the members of this fantasyland to enjoy liberty implies, among other things, absolute freedom of speech, except for speech that amounts to harassment, slander, or libel (which are forms of aggression that deprive others of liberty). But what about speech that would sunder the society into libertarian and non-libertarian factions? Suppose that a persuasive orator were to convince a potentially dominant faction of the society of the following proposition: The older members of society should be supported by the younger members, all of whom must “contribute” to the support of the elders, like it or not. Suppose further that the potentially dominant faction heeds the persuasive orator and forces everyone to “contribute” to the support of elders.

Note that our little society’s prior agreement to let everyone live in peace wouldn’t survive persuasive oratory (just as America’s relatively libertarian economic order didn’t survive FDR, the Constitution notwithstanding). Perhaps our little society should therefore adopt this restraint on liberty: No one may advocate or conspire in the coercion of the populace, for any end other than defense of the society.

Why an exception for defense? Imagine the long-term consequences for our little society if it were to dither as a marauding band approached, or if too few members of the society were to volunteer the resources needed to defeat the marauding band. What’s the good of the society’s commitment to liberty if it leads to the society’s demise?

Now, the restraint on speech and the exception for defense couldn’t be self-enforcing. There would have to a single agency empowered to enforce such things. That agency might as well be called the state.

Here, then, is the paradox for libertarians: Some aspects of liberty must be circumscribed in order to preserve most aspects of liberty.

The last word goes to Beauchamp, or rather to Carl Schmitt who is quoted by Beauchamp:

Even if Bolshevism is suppressed and Fascism held at bay, the crisis of contemporary parliamentarism would not be overcome in the least. For it has not appeared as a result of the appearance of those two opponents; it was there before them and will persist after them. Rather, the crisis springs from the consequences of modern mass democracy and in the final analysis from the contradiction of a liberal individualism burdened by moral pathos and a democratic sentiment governed essentially by political ideals. A century of historical alliance and common struggle against royal absolutism has obscured the awareness of this contradiction. But the crisis unfolds today ever more strikingly, and no cosmopolitan rhetoric can prevent or eliminate it. It is, in its depths, the inescapable contradiction of liberal individualism and democratic homogeneity [emphasis added].

The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy (1926),
translated by Ellen Kennedy

(See also “Inventing ‘Liberalism‘”, which about the advent of the modern abomination, and “Conservatism vs. ‘Libertarianism’ and Leftism on the Moral Dimension“, especially the footnote about “libertarianism”.)

Tragic Capitalism

Capitalism, when it isn’t being used as a “dirty word” by “socialist democrats” (the correct rendering, and an oxymoron at that), simply entails three connected things:

  • There is private ownership of the means of production — capital — which consists of the hardware, software, and processes used to produce goods and services.
  • There are private markets in which capital, goods, and services are bought by users, which are (a) firms engaged in the production and sale of capital, goods, and services and (b) consumers of the finished products.
  • The owners of capital, like the owners of labor that is applied to capital (i.e., “workers” ranging from CEOs and high-powered scientists to store clerks and ditch-diggers), are compensated according to the market valuation of the worth of their contributions to the production of goods and services. The market valuation depends ultimately on the valuation of the finished products by the final consumers of those products.

For simplicity, I omitted the messy details of the so-called mixed economy — like that of the U.S. — in which governments are involved in producing some goods and services that could be produced privately, regulating what may be offered in private markets, regulating the specifications of the goods and services that are offered in private markets, regulating the compensation of market participants, and otherwise distorting private markets through myriad taxes and social-welfare schemes — including many that don’t directly involve government spending, except to enforce them (e.g., anti-discrimination laws and environmental regulations).

None of what I have just said is the tragic aspect of capitalism to which the title of this post refers. Yes, government interventions in market are extremely costly, and some of them have tragic consequences (e.g., the mismatch effect of affirmative action, which causes many blacks to fail in college and in the workplace; the withholding of beneficial drugs by the FDA; and the vast waste of resources in the name of environmentalism and climate change). But all of that belongs under the heading of tragic government.

One tragedy of capitalism, which I have touched on before, is that it leads to alienation:

This much of Marx’s theory of alienation bears a resemblance to the truth:

The design of the product and how it is produced are determined, not by the producers who make it (the workers)….

[T]he generation of products (goods and services) is accomplished with an endless sequence of discrete, repetitive, motions that offer the worker little psychological satisfaction for “a job well done.”

These statements are true not only of assembly-line manufacturing. They’re also true of much “white collar” work — certainly routine office work and even a lot of research work that requires advanced degrees in scientific and semi-scientific disciplines (e.g., economics). They are certainly true of “blue collar” work that is rote, and in which the worker has no ownership stake….

The life of the hunter-gatherer, however fraught, is less rationalized than the kind of life that’s represented by intensive agriculture, let alone modern manufacturing, transportation, wholesaling, retailing, and office work.

The hunter-gatherer isn’t a cog in a machine, he is the machine: the shareholder, the co-manager, the co-worker, and the consumer, all in one. His work with others is truly cooperative. It is like the execution of a game-winning touchdown by a football team, and unlike the passing of a product from stage to stage in an assembly line, or the passing of a virtual piece of paper from computer to computer.

The hunter-gatherer’s social milieu was truly societal [and hunter-gatherer bands had an upper limit of 150 persons]….

Nor is the limit of 150 unique to hunter-gatherer bands. [It is also found in communal societies like Hutterite colonies, which spin off new colonies when the limit of 150 is reached.]

What all of this means, of course, is that for the vast majority of people there’s no going back. How many among us are willing — really willing — to trade our creature comforts for the “simple life”? Few would be willing when faced with the reality of what the “simple life” means; for example, catching or growing your own food, dawn-to-post-dusk drudgery, nothing resembling culture as we know it (high or low), and lives that are far closer to nasty, brutish, and short than today’s norms.

There is also an innate tension between capitalism and morality, as I say here:

Conservatives rightly defend free markets because they exemplify the learning from trial and error that underlies the wisdom of voluntarily evolved social norms — norms that bind a people in mutual trust, respect, and forbearance.

Conservatives also rightly condemn free markets — or some of the produce of free markets — because that produce is often destructive of social norms.

Thanks to a pointer from my son, I have since read Edward Feser’s “Hayek’s Tragic Capitalism” (Claremont Review of Books, April 30, 2019), which takes up the tension between capitalism and conservatism:

Precisely because they arise out of an impersonal process, market outcomes are amoral. Hayek thought it unwise to defend capitalism by emphasizing the just rewards of hard work, because there simply is no necessary connection between virtue of any kind, on the one hand, and market success on the other. Moreover, the functioning of the market economy depends on adherence to rules of behavior that abstract from the personal qualities of individuals. In particular, it depends on treating most of one’s fellow citizens not as members of the same tribe, religion, or the like, but as abstract economic actors—property owners, potential customers or clients, employers or employees, etc. It requires allowing these actors to pursue whatever ends they happen to have, rather than imposing some one overarching collective end, after the fashion of the central planner.

Hayek did not deny that all of this entailed an alienating individualism. On the contrary, he emphasized it, and warned that it was the deepest challenge to the stability of capitalism, against which defenders of the market must always be on guard. This brings us to his account of the moral defects inherent in human nature. To take seriously the thesis that human beings are the product of biological evolution is, for Hayek, to recognize that our natural state is to live in small tribal bands of the sort in which our ancestors were shaped by natural selection. Human psychology still reflects this primitive environment. We long for solidarity with a group that shares a common purpose and provides for its members based on their personal needs and merits. The impersonal, amoral, and self-interested nature of capitalist society repels us. We are, according to Hayek, naturally socialist.

The trouble is that socialism is, again, simply impossible in modern societies, with their vast populations and unimaginably complex economic circumstances. Socialism is practical only at the level of the small tribal bands in which our psychology was molded. Moreover, whereas in that primitive sort of context, everyone shares the same tribal identity and moral and religious outlook, in modern society there is no one tribe, religion, or moral code to which all of its members adhere. Socialism in the context of a modern society would therefore also be tyrannical as well as unworkable, since it would require imposing an overall social vision with which at most only some of its members agree. A socialist society cannot be a diverse society, and a diverse society cannot be socialist.

Socialism in large societies requires direction from on high, direction that cannot fail to be inefficient and oppressive.

Returning to Feser:

… Hayek—who had, decades before, penned a famous essay titled “Why I Am Not a Conservative”—went in a strongly Burkean conservative direction [in his last books]. Just as market prices encapsulate economic information that is not available to any single mind, so too, the later Hayek argued, do traditional moral rules that have survived the winnowing process of cultural evolution encapsulate more information about human well-being than the individual can fathom. Those who would overthrow traditional morality wholesale and replace it with some purportedly more rational alternative exhibit the same hubris as the socialist planner who foolishly thinks he can do better than the market.

Unsurprisingly, he took the institution of private property to be a chief example of the benefits of traditional morality. But he also came to emphasize the importance of the family as a stabilizing institution in otherwise coldly individualist market societies, and—despite his personal agnosticism—of religion as a bulwark of the morality of property and the family. He lamented the trend toward “permissive education” and “freeing ourselves from repressions and conventional morals,” condemned the ’60s counter-culture as “non-domesticated savages,” and placed Sigmund Freud alongside Karl Marx as one of the great destroyers of modern civilization.

Hayek was committed, then, to a kind of fusionism—the project of marrying free market economics to social conservatism. Unlike the fusionism associated with modern American conservatism, though, Hayek’s brand had a skeptical and tragic cast to it. He thought religion merely useful rather than true, and defended bourgeois morality as a painful but necessary corrective to human nature rather than an expression of it. In his view, human psychology has been cobbled together by a contingent combination of biological and cultural evolutionary processes. The resulting aggregate of cognitive and affective tendencies does not entirely cohere, and never will.

Feser than summarizes three critiques of Hayek’s fusionism, one by Irving Kristol, one by Roger Scruton, and one by Andrew Gamble, in Hayek: The Iron Cage of Liberty (1996). Gamble’s critique, according to Feser, is that Hayek

never adequately faced up to the dangers posed by corporate power. Most people cannot be entrepreneurs, and even those who can cannot match the tremendous advantages afforded by the deep pockets, legal resources, and other assets of a corporation. Vast numbers of citizens in actually existing capitalist societies simply must work for a corporation if they are going to work at all. But that entails an economic dependency of individuals on centralized authority, of a kind that is in some ways analogous to what Hayek warned of in his critique of central planning. As with socialism, conformity to the values of centralized authority becomes, in effect, a precondition of the very possibility of feeding oneself. By way of example, we may note that the political correctness Hayek would have despised is today more effectively and directly imposed on society by corporate Human Resources departments than by government.

Feser concludes with this:

None of this implies a condemnation of capitalism per se. The problem is one of fetishizing capitalism, of making market imperatives the governing principles to which all other aspects of social order are subordinate. The irony is that this is a variation on the same basic error of which socialism is guilty—what Pope John Paul II called “economism,” the reduction of human life to its economic aspect. Even F.A. Hayek, a far more subtle thinker than other defenders of the free economy, ultimately succumbed to this tendency. Too many modern conservatives have followed his lead. They have been so fixated on socialism and its economic irrationality that they have lost sight of other, ultimately more insidious, threats to Western civilization—including economism itself. To paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, a madman is not someone who has lost his economic reason, but someone who has lost everything but his economic reason.

Alan Jacobs offers an orthogonal view in his essay, “After Technopoly” (The New Atlantis, Spring 2019):

The apparent captain of technopoly [the universal and virtually inescapable rule of our everyday lives by those who make and deploy technology] is what [Michael] Oakeshott calls a “rationalist”…. [T]hat captain can achieve his political ends most readily by creating people who are not rationalists. The rationalists of Silicon Valley don’t care whom you’re calling out or why, as long as you’re calling out someone and doing it on Twitter….

Oakeshott wrote “The Tower of Babel” at roughly the same time as his most famous essay, “Rationalism in Politics” (1947), with which it shares certain themes. At that moment rationalism seemed, and indeed was, ascendant. Rejecting the value of habit and tradition — and of all authority except “reason” — the rationalist is concerned solely with the present as a problem to be solved by technique; politics simply is social engineering….

Oakeshott foresaw the coming of a world — to him a sadly depleted world — in which everyone, or almost everyone, would be a rationalist.

But that isn’t what happened. What happened was the elevation of a technocratic elite into a genuine technopoly, in which transnational powers in command of digital technologies sustain their nearly complete control by using the instruments of rationalism to ensure that the great majority of people acquire their moral life by habituation. This habituation, of course, is not the kind Oakeshott hoped for but a grossly impoverished version of it, one in which we do not adopt our affections and conduct from families, friends, and neighbors, but rather from the celebrity strangers who populate our digital devices.

In sum, 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.

I therefore repeat this counsel:

It is important (nay, crucial) to cultivate an inner life of intellectual or spiritual satisfaction. Only that inner life — and the love and friendship of a small circle of fellows — can hold alienation at bay. Only that inner life — and love and close friendships — can give us serenity as civilization crumbles around us.

Conservatism vs. “Libertarianism” and Leftism on the Moral Dimension

I said this recently:

Conservatives rightly defend free markets because they exemplify the learning from trial and error that underlies the wisdom of voluntarily evolved social norms — norms that bind a people in mutual trust, respect, and forbearance.

Conservatives also rightly condemn free markets — or some of the produce of free markets — because that produce is often destructive of social norms.

What about “libertarianism”* and leftism? So-called libertarians, if they are being intellectually consistent, will tell you that it doesn’t matter what markets produce (as long as the are truly free ones). What matters, in their view, is whether the produce of markets isn’t used to cause harm to others. (I have elsewhere addressed the vacuousness and fatuousness of the harm principle.) Therein lies a conundrum — or perhaps a paradox — for if the produce of markets can be used to cause harm, that is, used in immoral ways, the produce (and the act of producing it) may be immoral, that is, inherently and unambiguously harmful.

Guns aren’t a good example because they can be (and are) used in peaceful and productive or neutral ways (e.g., hunting for food, target-shooting for the enjoyment of it). Their use in self-defense and in wars against enemies, though not peaceful, is productive for the persons and nations engaged in defensive actions. (A war that contains elements of offense — even preemption — may nevertheless be defensive.)

Child pornography, on the other hand, is rightly outlawed because the production of it involves either (a) forcible participation by children or (b) the exploitation of “willing” children who are too young and inexperienced in life to know that they are subjecting themselves to physical and emotional dangers. Inasmuch as the produce (child pornography) can result only from an immoral process (physical or emotional coercion), the produce is therefore inherently and unambiguously immoral. I will leave it to the reader to find similar examples.

Here, I will turn in a different direction and tread on controversial ground by saying that the so-called marketplace of ideas sometimes yields inherently and unambiguously immoral outcomes:

Unlike true markets, where competition usually eliminates sellers whose products and services are found wanting, the competition of ideas often leads to the broad acceptance of superstitions, crackpot notions, and plausible but mistaken theories. These often find their way into government policy, where they are imposed on citizens and taxpayers for the psychic benefit of politicians and bureaucrats and the monetary benefit of their cronies.

The “marketplace” of ideas is replete with vendors who are crackpots, charlatans, and petty tyrants. They run rampant in the media, academia, and government.

If that were the only example of odious outcomes, it would be more than enough to convince me (if I needed convincing) that “libertarians” are dangerously naive. They are the kind of people who believe that disputes can and will be resolved peacefully through the application of “reason”, when they live in a world where most of the evidence runs in the other direction. They are as Lord Halifax — Winston Churchill’s first foreign secretary — was to Churchill: whimpering appeasers vs. defiant defenders of civilization.

The willingness of leftists (especially office-holders, office-seekers, and apparatchiks) to accept market outcomes is easier to analyze. Despite their preference for government dictation of market outcomes, they are willing to accept those outcomes as long as they comport with what should be, as leftists happen to see it at the moment. Leftists are notoriously unsteady in their views of what should be, because those views are contrived to yield power. Today’s incessant attacks on “racism”, “inequality”, and “sexism” are aimed at disarming the (rather too reluctant and gentlemanly) defenders of liberty (which isn’t synonymous with the unfettered operation of markets).

Power is the ultimate value of leftist office-holders, office-seekers, and apparatchiks. The inner compass of that ilk — regardless of posturing to the contrary — points toward power, not morality. Rank-and-file leftists — most of them probably sincere in their moral views — are merely useful idiots who lend their voices, votes, and money (often unwittingly) to the cause of repression.

Leftism, in short, exploits the inherent immorality of the “marketplace of ideas”.

Is it any wonder that leftism almost always triumphs over “libertarianism” and conservatism? Leftism is the cajoling adult who convinces the unwitting child to partake of physically and psychologically harmful sexual activity.


* I have used “sneer quotes” because “libertarianism” is a shallow ideology. True libertarianism is found in tradistional conservatism. (See “What Is Libertarianism?” and “True Libertarianism, One More Time“, for example.)

(See also “Asymmetrical (Ideological) Warfare“, “An Addendum to Asymmetrical (Ideological) Warfare“, and “The Left-Libertarian Axis“.)

Conservatism’s Fundamental Dilemma: Markets vs. Morality

Conservatives rightly defend free markets because they exemplify the learning from trial and error that underlies the wisdom of voluntarily evolved social norms — norms that bind a people in mutual trust, respect, and forbearance.

Conservatives also rightly condemn free markets — or some of the produce of free markets — because that produce is often destructive of social norms.

Collaborationist Conservatives

Michael Anton, author of “The Flight 93 Election“, has coined the apt term Vichycons for collaborationist conservatives. (I wish I had thought of it first.) Anton nails them in “Vichycons and Mass Shootings“:

One prominent member of the species has called for “civility.” I’m all for “civility,” but it takes two to tango and the kind of “civility” on which he insists amounts—in the face of the Left’s intensifying power-hungry wrath—to unilateral disarmament. The Vichycons are like pearl-clutching old ladies somehow unperturbed by the ambient culture’s mass obscenity who upbraid their husbands for saying “damn.” They may claim to favor high standards for all, but in practice all their fire is consistently directed rightward….

Conservatives, as noted, are supposed to know something about nature, human nature, natural limits, politics, history, and permanent truths. That they do not is plainly evident from the fact that an alternative explanation for El Paso—and for other recent mass atrocities—is right under their collective nose and yet has never occurred to them. Or maybe it has but they’re too chicken to voice it. Again, I don’t know which would be worse.

Anton’s “alternative explanation” is the unraveling of social norms since the 1960s, which has led to greater violence and far less social harmony.

And Vichycons bear a big share of the responsibility for what has happened. Too many of them — especially in high and influential places — have been (and are) so anxious to seem “civil” and so eager to “get along” that they have failed to challenge the willful unraveling of social norms by the left. Theirs is a moral failing, though they don’t think of it as such because, for them, “image” and “connections” are far more important than actual adherence to principle. Perhaps it’s because, like Max Boot, they were never really conservative in the first place.

(See also “Corresponding with a Collaborator“, “‘Conservative’ Collabos“, and “Rooted in the Real World of Real People“.)

Conservatism, Society, and the End of America

To be wary or skeptical of that which is different is not a matter of close-mindedness, hate, racism, or other such “evil” tendencies. Wariness and skepticism, rather, are deep-seated and salutary survival instincts. They are evolved psychological responses analogous to the physiological phenomenon of foreign-body reaction.

Wariness and skepticism are the basis of conservatism: the preference for ideas, methods, materials, and customs which have been repeatedly tested in the acid of use. Conservatism is the opposite of novelty for novelty’s sake, thrill-seeking, and hope-based change — from which stem many an unwanted consequence.

Society, properly understood, is conservative. A society is an enduring and cooperating social group whose members have developed organized patterns of relationships through interaction with one another. No one who gives it much thought would say that America is or ever was a society. The word is used too loosely. But America was, from the aftermath of the Civil War until the early 1960s, at least, an interlocking set of societies, bound more or less tightly by shared social norms (not the least of them being an unashamed belief in the Judeo-Christian God), a common language (most immigrants sought to assimilate), pride in what “America” stood for (remember the Pledge of Allegiance?), and a willingness to defend a nation under the Constitution and laws of which Americans enjoyed a great deal more freedom and prosperity than the denizens of most other nations.

“Liberalism” of the kind fomented by the Enlightenment, by political philosophers like J.S. Mill, and by today’s leftists (including most so-called libertarians), is insidiously destructive of society. “Liberalism” denigrates and attacks the things that bind people, most notably social norms (which include religious ones) and patriotism. (Leftists, ironically, attack identification with America and its history — much of it proud — while touting the virtues of various and sundry identity groups.)

It is no great exaggeration to say that America is no more. Where once upon a time products could be sold by appealing to “baseball, mom, hot dogs, and apple pie”, the slogan would now invite scorn and ridicule throughout much of the land, and especially on the two Left Coasts.

America (taking it as a collective for the moment) has lost its soul, like continental Europe and the British Isles before it. By soul, I mean the common beliefs and norms that bound most Americans as Americans.

There are still remnants of “Old America” where “baseball, mom, hot dogs, and apple pie” hold appeal — especially when coupled with God. But the left, with the connivance of the internet-media-academic complex, has marginalized “Old America”. Even to speak of traditional marriage, personal responsibility, limited government, color-blind justice, the importance of two-parent families, genetic inheritance, performance-based advancement, religion as a civilizing influence, science as a method (not a producer of “truth” to be worshiped), etc., is to be branded a far-right, fanatic who is unfit to hold public office and who should be publicly and vocally scolded (or worse) as a privileged white racist, sexist, homophobe, transphobe, Islamophobe, hater, and science-denier.

How did it happen? How did “Old America” spawn something that is its opposite, nay, its enemy? How did “Old America” spawn forces of suppression that daily seem to grow more powerful in their ability to ostracize, penalize, and dictate to the rest of us? How did this new dispensation come to dominate the institutions that shape culture: academia, public education, (many) churches, the media (including “news” and “entertainment”), and much of the political machinery of America?

I would say these three things, for a start:

Prosperity has separated most Americans from the “real life” and thus from the need for wariness and caution.

The decades-long dominance of leftist ideas in most public schools has fostered the emergence of the left-biased and vastly influential information-entertainment-media-academic complex.

Politicians, whose power has been elevated to undreamed of heights by the abrogation of the Constitution, have joined the leftward throng, when they haven’t been leading it. In particular, government has subverted conservative ideals (marriage before family, hard work rather than handouts and crime, etc.).

I believe that the situation is irredeemable. Many interconnected trends are at work, and they will not cease their work unless they are interrupted by a cataclysm of some kind that forces most Americans to confront “real life” and cooperate in survival.

Why Populism Is Popular

Affluent “elites” are well-insulated from the consequences of the policies that they promote and enact. Sometimes the elites justify those policies because they are “good” for an amorphous aggregation (“the country”, “the people”, GDP). Thus, for example, elites favor “free trade” and “open borders” because some they (supposedly) result in a net gain in GDP. That the gain is net of the losses incurred by many taxpayers and victims of crime is irrelevant to the elites.

And when elites are promoting “social justice” they favor policies that are best for a particular group, to the exclusion of other groups. It doesn’t start that way, but that’s how it ends up, because the easiest way to “make things right” for a particular group is to penalize others, as in “affirmative action”, “affordable (tax-funded) housing”, suppression of speech, etc.

You get the idea. Elites stroke their own egos in the pursuit of abstract measures of “good”, and disdain those who are harmed, calling them — among many things — “bitter clingers”, “deplorables”, and denizens of “flyover country”.

I have been guilty of elitism, but I am cured of it. I have joined the no-longer-silent majority. No-longer-silent thanks to Donald Trump — praise be!

(See also “Modern Utilitarianism“, “Rethinking Free Trade“, and “Rooted in the Real World of Real People“.)

The Enlightenment’s Fatal Flaw

The fatal flaw is the reliance on reason. 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.

So much of life is — of necessity — conducted in a realm beyond “reason”, where instincts and customs come into play in a universe that is but dimly understood.

By contrast, as the Wikipedia article admits, the Enlightenment — like its contemporary manifestations in pseudo-science (e.g., Malthusianism, Marxism, “climate change”), politics (e.g., “social justice”), and many other endeavors — relies on reductionism, which is

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

Reason relies on verbalization (or its mathematical equivalent), but words (and numbers) fail 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. But it has almost nothing to do with most of life — and especially not with politics.

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

As exemplified by this “child of the enlightenment”:

Child of the enlightenment

(See also “In Praise of Prejudice” and “We, the Children of the Enlightenment“.)

Further Thoughts about Utilitarianism

I am staunchly anti-utilitarian, as I explain at length in this post. But I have argued elsewhere (e.g., here) against government-designed rules that favor the few at the expense of the many. Does that make me a hypocrite?

No. Because I am also against government-designed rules that favor the many at the expense of the few. Both kinds of rules are abhorrent to me because they are government-designed. (I say “government-designed” because there are many rules imposed by government — the prohibition of murder, for example — which merely enforce long-standing social norms. Government-designed rules aren’t strictly government designed; they usually arise from efforts by interest groups to benefit themselves regardless of, or in spite of, long-standing social norms.)

To be clear, when I use the word “favor” I’m thinking not of rules that are meant to protect the vast majority of people from the small minority of them who are predators. “Favor” doesn’t come into it. To “favor” one group over another is to give privileges to that group which impose burdens on others. The prohibition of murder, for example, doesn’t “favor” victims; it denies (or attempts to deny) predators the “privilege” of victimizing others. (For much more, see “The Invention of Rights“.)

So when I rail against two-percent tyranny — the granting of privileges for small segments of the populace — it’s not that I’m making a utilitarian judgment about those privileges (i.e., 98 percent outweighs 2 percent). Rather, it’s because of the privileges themselves.

Such privileges may seem to be born of common sense (e.g., bike lanes keep bicyclists out of traffic lanes; the legalization of same-sex marriage merely extends the institution of marriage, which is a “good thing”). But, as government-designed rules, they signal that the beneficiaries deserve special treatment. Thus, for example, bicyclists push the envelope by riding the white line between the bike lane and the traffic lane. Same-sex couples (emboldened by other government-designed rules) use their status to attack and (financially) destroy businesses that prefer not to honor same-sex “marriage” or same-sex relationships.

In the latter case, a government-designed definition of marriage fosters the subversion of a long-recognized right: freedom of association. Same-sex couples have that freedom, but they seek to deny it to those who prefer not to associate with them.

(See also “How to Protect Property Rights and Freedom of Association and Expression“.)

The Left-Libertarian Axis

I long ago concluded that the path to liberty is found in conservatism, not in what is called “libertarianism”. By conservatism I mean the disposition to rely on the tried-and-true, which doesn’t preclude a willingness to innovate but does insist that the acceptance of innovation must be voluntary. (See “Social Norms and Liberty” and the posts listed at the end. “True Libertarianism, One More Time” and “Why Conservatism Works” are especially relevant here.)

Among many reasons for my rejection of “libertarianism” is its essential similarity to leftism, both ideologically and in its implementation.

The ideological similarity is evident in Arnold Kling‘s three-axes model, which he explains in The Three Languages of Politics: Talking Across the Political Divide. Here are some relevant passages:

In politics, I claim that progressives, conservatives, and libertarians are like tribes speaking different languages. The language that resonates with one tribe does not connect with the others. As a result, political discussions do not lead to agreement. Instead, most political commentary serves to increase polarization. The points that people make do not open the minds of people on the other side. They serve to close the minds of the people on one’s own side.

Which political language do you speak? Of course, your own views are carefully nuanced, and you would never limit yourself to speaking in a limited language. So think of one of your favorite political commentators, an insightful individual with whom you generally agree. Which of the following statements would that commentator most likely make?

(P) [Progressive] My heroes are people who have stood up for the underprivileged. The people I cannot stand are the people who are indifferent to the oppression of women, minorities, and the poor.

(C) [Conservative] My heroes are people who have stood up for Western values. The people I cannot stand are the people who are indifferent to the assault on the moral virtues and traditions that are the foundation for our civilization.

(L) [Libertarian] My heroes are people who have stood up for individual rights. The people I cannot stand are the people who are indifferent to government taking away people’s ability to make their own choices….

I call this the three-axes model of political communication. A progressive will communicate along the oppressor-oppressed axis, framing issues in terms of the (P) dichotomy. A conservative will communicate along the civilization-barbarism axis, framing issues in terms of the (C) dichotomy. A libertarian will communicate along the liberty-coercion axis, framing issues in terms of the (L) dichotomy….

If there is a real difference between P and L, I cannot find it. “Liberty-coercion” is just another way of saying “oppressor-oppressed”. One who isn’t oppressed is therefore (in the view of the “progressive”) enjoying liberty, or is at least one step closer to it.

The operational similarity between leftism and “libertarianism” is the enthusiasm shown by many “libertarians” for government intervention when it advances their particular causes. The following passages, lifted from an old post of mine, elaborate on the ideological and operational similarities of leftism and “libertarianism”.

Some “libertarians” have become apologists for PCness. Will Wilkinson, for example, suggests that

most PC episodes mocked and derided by the right are not state impositions. They are generally episodes of the voluntary social enforcement of relatively newly established moral/cultural norms.

Wilkinson grossly simplifies the complex dynamics of PCness. His so-called “newly established … norms” are, in fact, norms that have been embraced by insular élites (e.g., academics and think-tank denizens like Wilksinson) and then foisted upon “the masses” by the élites in charge of government and government-controlled institutions (e.g., tax-funded universities). Thus it is no surprise that proposals to allow same-sex marriage fare poorly when they are submitted to voters. Similarly, the “right” to an abortion, almost four decades after Roe v. Wade, remains far from universally accepted and meets greater popular resistance with the passage of time.

Roderick Long is another “libertarian” who endorses PCness:

Another issue that inflames many libertarians against political correctness is the issue of speech codes on campuses. Yes, many speech codes are daft. But should people really enjoy exactly the same freedom of speech on university property that they would rightfully enjoy on their own property? Why, exactly?

If the answer is that the purposes of a university are best served by an atmosphere of free exchange of ideas — is there no validity to the claim that certain kinds of speech might tend, through an intimidating effect, to undermine just such an atmosphere?…

At my university [Auburn], several white fraternity members were recently disciplined for dressing up, some in Klan costumes and others in blackface, and enacting a mock lynching. Is the university guilty of violating their freedom of expression? I can’t see that it is. Certainly those students have a natural right to dress up as they please and engage in whatever playacting they like, so long as they conduct themselves peacefully. But there is no natural right to be a student at Auburn University.

Long — who describes himself as a “left-libertarian market anarchist” (whatever that is) — makes a clever but fallacious argument. The purposes of a university have nothing to do with the case. Speech is speech, except when it really isn’t speech, as in sit-ins (trespass), child pornography (sexual exploitation of minors), and divulging military secrets (treason, in fact if not in name).

Long is rightly disgusted by the actions of the fraternity members he mentions, but disgust does not excuse the suppression of speech by a State university. It is true that there is no “natural right” to be a student at Auburn, but there is, likewise, no “natural right” not to be offended.

Steven Horwitz is a kindred spirit:

Yes, legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 involved some interference with private property and the right of association, but it also did away with a great deal of state-sponsored discrimination and was, in my view, a net gain for liberty.

Well, some parts of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, together with its progeny — the Civil Rights Acts of 1968 and 1991 — did advance liberty, but many parts did not. A principled libertarian would acknowledge that, and parse the Acts into their libertarian and anti-libertarian components. A moral scold who really, really wants the state to impose his attitudes on others would presume — as Horwitz does — to weigh legitimate gains (e.g., voting rights) against unconscionable losses (e.g., property rights and freedom of association). But presumptuousness comes naturally to Horwitz because he — like Lindsey, Wilkinson, and Long — stands high above reality, in his ivory tower.

Wilkinson is sympatico with Horwitz in the matter of state action:

Government attempts to guarantee the worth of our liberties by recognizing positive rights to a minimum income or certain services like health care often (but not always) undermine the framework of market and civil institutions most likely to enhance liberty over the long run, and should be limited. But this is really an empirical question about what really does maximize individuals’ chances of formulating and realizing meaningful projects and lives.

Within this framework, racism, sexism, etc., which strongly limit the useful exercise of liberty are clear evils. Now, I am ambivalent about whether the state ought to step in and do anything about it.

Wilkinson, like Horwitz, is quite willing to submit to the state (or have others do so), where state action passes some kind of cost-benefit test. (See “Utilitarianism vs. Liberty.”)

In any event, what more could the state do than it has done already? Well, there is always “hate crime” legislation, which (as Nat Hentoff points out) is tantamount to “thought crime” legislation. Perhaps that would satisfy Long, Horwitz, Wilkinson, and their brethren on the “libertarian” left. And, if that doesn’t do the trick, there is always Richard Thaler’s “libertarian” paternalism (with its statist slant), and Cass Sunstein’s proposal for policing thought on the internet. Sunstein, at least, doesn’t pretend to be a libertarian.

Where is libertarianism to be found? In conservatism, of all places, because it is a reality-based political philosophy.

But what does conservatism have to do with libertarianism? I have in various posts essayed an answer to that question (here, here, here, and here, for example), but now I turn the floor over to John Kekes, who toward the end of “What Is Conservatism?” says this:

The traditionalism of conservatives excludes both the view that political arrangements that foster individual autonomy should take precedence over those that foster social authority and the reverse view that favours arrangements that promote social authority at the expense of individual autonomy. Traditionalists acknowledge the importance of both autonomy and authority, but they regard them as inseparable, interdependent, and equally necessary. The legitimate claims of both may be satisfied by the participation of individuals in the various traditions of their society. Good political arrangements protect these traditions and the freedom to participate in them by limiting the government’s authority to interfere with either.

Therein lies true libertarianism — true because it is attainable. Left-libertarians believe, foolishly, that liberty is to be found in the rejection of social norms. Liberty would be the first victim of the brave new disorder that they wish for.

Idealism Is Dangerous

Leftists and libertarians are deluded idealists. Deluded, because they imagine a world that cannot be, given nature and human nature. And so they promote causes that are doomed to fail, at great cost in treasure and something far more important: mutual trust, respect, and forbearance. Those are the pillars of true liberty, which is peaceful, voluntary, mutually beneficial coexistence.

Libertarianism’s Fundamental Flaw

It seeks to “liberate” mankind by obliterating the very rules of behavior than enable mutually beneficial coexistence based on trust, respect, and forbearance.

Libertarianism is therefore akin to leftism, but naively so. Leftists stand ready to pick up the pieces after they have destroyed the social and economic fabric of civilization. Libertarians will simply wander around in a daze, wondering what happened to the bulwarks of their comfortable existence — until they are liquidated by leftists.

Conservatism vs. Extremism

Conservatism, properly understood, is the polar opposite of extremism. Conservatism is the practice of observing and defending those time-tested social norms that bind people through mutual trust, respect, and forbearance. Extremism is the destruction of those norms by using the vast power of the state and the academic-media-information technology complex.

Not with a Bang

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

T.S. Elliot, The Hollow Men

It’s also the way that America is ending. Yes, there are verbal fireworks aplenty, but there will not be a “hot” civil war. The country that my parents and grandparents knew and loved — the country of my youth in the 1940s and 1950s — is just fading away.

This would not necessarily be a bad thing if the remaking of America were a gradual, voluntary process, leading to time-tested changes for the better. But that isn’t the case. The very soul of America has been and is being ripped out by the government that was meant to protect that soul, and by movements that government not only tolerates but fosters.

Before I go further, I should explain what I mean by America, which is not the same thing as the geopolitical entity known as the United States, though the two were tightly linked for a long time.

America was a relatively homogeneous cultural order that fostered mutual respect, mutual trust, and mutual forbearance — or far more of those things than one might expect in a nation as populous and far-flung as the United States. Those things — conjoined with a Constitution that has been under assault since the New Deal — made America a land of liberty. That is to say, they fostered real liberty, which isn’t an unattainable state of bliss but an actual (and imperfect) condition of peaceful, willing coexistence and its concomitant: beneficially cooperative behavior.

The attainment of this condition depends on social comity, which depends in turn on (a) genetic kinship and (b) the inculcation and enforcement of social norms, especially the norms that define harm.

All of that is going by the boards because the emerging cultural order is almost diametrically opposite that which prevailed in America. The new dispensation includes:

  • casual sex
  • serial cohabitation
  • subsidized illegitimacy
  • abortion on demand
  • easy divorce
  • legions of non-mothering mothers
  • concerted (and deluded) efforts to defeminize females and to neuter or feminize males
  • gender-confusion as a burgeoning norm
  • “alternative lifestyles” that foster disease, promiscuity, and familial instability
  • normalization of drug abuse
  • forced association (with accompanying destruction of property and employment rights)
  • suppression of religion
  • rampant obscenity
  • identity politics on steroids
  • illegal immigration as a “right”
  • “free stuff” from government (Social Security was meant to be self-supporting)
  • America as the enemy
  • all of this (and more) as gospel to influential elites whose own lives are modeled mostly on old America.

As the culture has rotted, so have the ties that bound America.

The rot has occurred to the accompaniment of cacophony. Cultural coarsening begets loud and inconsiderate vulgarity. Worse than that is the cluttering of the ether with the vehement and belligerent propaganda, most of it aimed at taking down America.

The advocates of the new dispensation haven’t quite finished the job of dismantling America. But that day isn’t far off. Complete victory for the enemies of America is only a few election cycles away. The squishy center of the electorate — as is its wont — will swing back toward the Democrat Party. With a Democrat in the White House, a Democrat-controlled Congress, and a few party switches in the Supreme Court (of the packing of it), the dogmas of the anti-American culture will become the law of the land; for example:

Billions and trillions of dollars will be wasted on various “green” projects, including but far from limited to the complete replacement of fossil fuels by “renewables”, with the resulting impoverishment of most Americans, except for comfortable elites who press such policies).

It will be illegal to criticize, even by implication, such things as abortion, illegal immigration, same-sex marriage, transgenderism, anthropogenic global warming, or the confiscation of firearms. These cherished beliefs will be mandated for school and college curricula, and enforced by huge fines and draconian prison sentences (sometimes in the guise of “re-education”).

Any hint of Christianity and Judaism will be barred from public discourse, and similarly punished. Islam will be held up as a model of unity and tolerance.

Reverse discrimination in favor of females, blacks, Hispanics, gender-confused persons, and other “protected” groups will be required and enforced with a vengeance. But “protections” will not apply to members of such groups who are suspected of harboring libertarian or conservative impulses.

Sexual misconduct (as defined by the “victim”) will become a crime, and any male person may be found guilty of it on the uncorroborated testimony of any female who claims to have been the victim of an unwanted glance, touch (even if accidental), innuendo (as perceived by the victim), etc.

There will be parallel treatment of the “crimes” of racism, anti-Islamism, nativism, and genderism.

All health care in the United States will be subject to review by a national, single-payer agency of the central government. Private care will be forbidden, though ready access to doctors, treatments, and medications will be provided for high officials and other favored persons. The resulting health-care catastrophe that befalls most of the populace (like that of the UK) will be shrugged off as a residual effect of “capitalist” health care.

The regulatory regime will rebound with a vengeance, contaminating every corner of American life and regimenting all businesses except those daring to operate in an underground economy. The quality and variety of products and services will decline as their real prices rise as a fraction of incomes.

The dire economic effects of single-payer health care and regulation will be compounded by massive increases in other kinds of government spending (defense excepted). The real rate of economic growth will approach zero.

The United States will maintain token armed forces, mainly for the purpose of suppressing domestic uprisings. Given its economically destructive independence from foreign oil and its depressed economy, it will become a simulacrum of the USSR and Mao’s China — and not a rival to the new superpowers, Russia and China, which will largely ignore it as long as it doesn’t interfere in their pillaging of respective spheres of influence. A policy of non-interference (i.e., tacit collusion) will be the order of the era in Washington.

Though it would hardly be necessary to rig elections in favor of Democrats, given the flood of illegal immigrants who will pour into the country and enjoy voting rights, a way will be found to do just that. The most likely method will be election laws requiring candidates to pass ideological purity tests by swearing fealty to the “law of the land” (i.e., abortion, unfettered immigration, same-sex marriage, freedom of gender choice for children, etc., etc., etc.). Those who fail such a test will be barred from holding any kind of public office, no matter how insignificant.

Are my fears exaggerated? I don’t think so, given what has happened in recent decades and the cultural revolutionaries’ tightening grip on the Democrat party. What I have sketched out can easily happen within a decade after Democrats seize total control of the central government.

Will the defenders of liberty rally to keep it from happening? Perhaps, but I fear that they will not have a lot of popular support, for three reasons:

First, there is the problem of asymmetrical ideological warfare, which favors the party that says “nice” things and promises “free” things.

Second, What has happened thus far — mainly since the 1960s — has happened slowly enough that it seems “natural” to too many Americans. They are like fish in water who cannot grasp the idea of life in a different medium.

Third, although change for the worse has accelerated in recent years, it has occurred mainly in forums that seem inconsequential to most Americans, for example, in academic fights about free speech, in the politically correct speeches of Hollywood stars, and in culture wars that are conducted mainly in the blogosphere. The unisex-bathroom issue seems to have faded as quickly as it arose, mainly because it really affects so few people. The latest gun-control mania may well subside — though it has reached new heights of hysteria — but it is only one battle in the broader war being waged by the left. And most Americans lack the political and historical knowledge to understand that there really is a civil war underway — just not a “hot” one.

Is a reversal possible? Possible, yes, but unlikely. The rot is too deeply entrenched. Public schools and universities are cesspools of anti-Americanism. The affluent elites of the information-entertainment-media-academic complex are in the saddle. Republican politicians, for the most part, are of no help because they are more interested on preserving their comfortable sinecures than in defending America or the Constitution.

On that note, I will take a break from blogging — perhaps forever. I urge you to read one of my early posts, “Reveries“, for a taste of what America means to me. As for my blogging legacy, please see “A Summing Up“, which links to dozens of posts and pages that amplify and support this post.

Il faut cultiver notre jardin.

Voltaire, Candide


Related reading:

Michael Anton, “What We Still Have to Lose“, American Greatness, February 10, 2019

Rod Dreher, “Benedict Option FAQ“, The American Conservative, October 6, 2015

Roger Kimball, “Shall We Defend Our Common History?“, Imprimis, February 2019

Joel Kotkin, “Today’s Cultural Engineers“, newgeography, January 26, 2019

Daniel Oliver, “Where Has All the Culture Gone?“, The Federalist, February 8, 2019

Malcolm Pollack, “On Civil War“, Motus Mentis, March 7, 2019

Fred Reed, “The White Man’s Burden: Reflections on the Custodial State“, Fred on Everything, January 17, 2019

Gilbert T. Sewall, “The Diminishing Authority of the Bourgeois Culture“, The American Conservative, February 4, 2019

Bob Unger, “Requiem for America“, The New American, January 24, 2019

A Summing Up

This post has been updated and moved to “Favorite Posts“.

Peak Leftism?

Leftists used to be somewhat subtle in their efforts to win the hearts of the populace. I would say minds, too, but leftism is an emotional, delusional stance — not a reasoned or scientific one, leftist propaganda to the contrary notwithstanding. Whereas conservatism is about learning from experience, which requires personal responsibility and teaches self-reliance, leftism gives primacy to “hope” (blind faith) and “change” (for its own sake), shirks personal responsibility, and teaches reliance on government.

Now, leftism — a.k.a. fascism in the name of utopianism — seems to reach new heights of hysteria every day. Gone is the appearance of sweet reason and “compassion”. Fangs are bared, cudgels are in motion, bullets are flying.

Isn’t this bound to end, to “burn itself out”? Not necessarily. Consider the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the American Civil War, the Bolshevik Revolution, Hitler’s rise to power, and the Chinese Communist Revolution. What do they have in common with each other and with the not-so-stealthy revolution that has been taking place in America?

For one thing, the historical movements succeeded in overthrowing the established political order — for better and (usually) for worse. The ongoing stealth revolution has done so, too, but mainly by exploiting the established order’s rules, that is, by co-opting and subverting the legislative, executive, and judicial functions. The First Amendment, to take a leading example, has been exploited by the media to subvert America’s defenses; exploited by purveyors of filth and decadence to subvert social norms against such filth and decadence; and exploited by purveyors of anti-constitutional measures to advance those measures through asymmetrical ideological warfare.

The present and historical revolutions have several things in common:

  • “intellectuals” who enunciate the revolution’s aims
  • active, visible, and vocal hard-core followers who are prepared to sacrifice (and even to die) for the cause
  • fringe followers who support the cause (by word, deed, or vote) because they believe in it, or come to believe in it because of social pressure to do so
  • “financiers” who lend substantial material support to the cause because they believe in it or stand to benefit from its success.

The not-so-stealthy revolution in America is unlike the historical ones because its participants — for the most part — are not considered subversive, or cannot be treated as subversive under prevailing legal norms. One of those norms, as mentioned above, is an overly broad interpretation of the First Amendment, which empowers the enemies of liberty. Defenders of liberty, on the other hand, are being suppressed by universities and social media, acting with state-like power.

More generally, there has been an almost unrelenting assault on the Constitution, the design of which was intended to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to … our Posterity”. The stage for this assault was set when, in the words of Bertrand de Jouvenel,

the government at Washington … launch[ed] a war such as Europe had never yet seen to crush the attempt of the Southern States to form themselves into a separate unity.

As in so many instances since the Civil War, the government at Washington wrapped itself in a mantle of holiness (i.e, anti-slavery) to impose a decidedly unholy agenda on the nation. The agenda in the case of the Civil War was the destruction of the co-sovereign relationship between the States and central government that was at the heart of the Constitution. The government at Washington thereafter, and by various means, has

  • arrogated to itself power that belongs to the States under the Constitution — power which is most evident in the alphabet soup of agencies doing things that aren’t contemplated in the Constitution
  • usurped rights belonging to the people, including, but far from limited to, freedom of association and peaceful use of one’s property
  • undermined civilizing social norms, including but far from limited to, religious observances that do not constitute an establishment of religion, and the peremptory redefinition of marriage.

These power grabs have sometimes been executed boldly, and with the support of broad masses of people — especially but not exclusively during the Progressive Era, and under the aegis of the New Deal and the Great Society. But since the Progressive Era there has been a general accretion of power, often through subtle regulatory aggression, even during Republican administrations.

Given the great successes enjoyed by the enemies of liberty — by the left, that is — why the present hysteria? The unrelenting “resistance” to Trump. The phony sexual-assault allegations against Kavanaugh. The “hate whitey” campaign, to which many white leftists subscribe. The “hate” hoaxes perpetrated by their supposed (leftist) victims. The increasingly obvious pro-left bias that pervades most “news” media. The promises by congressional Democrats of post-election retribution against Republicans. And on and on.

The hysteria stems from a fear of losing ground. There is a ratchet effect in politics that has worked to the left’s advantage for more than a century. What if the ratchet effect were reversed, obviously and decisively, by the efforts of one man — a man whom the left (and dupes on the right) have done their best to thwart and discredit? Would this not embolden more advocates of liberty to speak and act boldly — to reject the compromising, emasculated, collaborationist “conservatism” of the Bushes, McCain, and Romney?

It probably would. And that’s what the left fears. And its fears are evident in the present hysteria.

That’s why today’s elections are so important. Today may well mark a turning point in the not-so-stealthy revolution. If the GOP holds the House and Senate, Trump will have been vindicated. He will have more allies (outside of Congress if not within it) in his battles to build a judiciary of constitutionalists; to fend off the cultural and electoral threat from south of the border, to rebuild America’s defenses and pursue a pro-American foreign policy, and generally to put the forces of liberty on the offensive for a change.

P.S. (on the morning after election day): The Dems have won a majority in the House, though a narrow one. Meanwhile, the GOP has increased its majority in the Senate. That is the better half of the loaf because control of the Senate means that Trump can continue to remake the judiciary in a conservative image. Further, the House will be perceived as the obstructionist body for the next two years, setting the stage for a GOP restoration there. Barring the unforeseeable, a largely successful Trump presidency will set the stage for Republican dominance in 2020.

True Populism

Populism, according to Wikipedia,

refers to a range of approaches which emphasise the role of “the people” and often juxtapose this group against “the elite”. There is no single definition of the term, which developed in the 19th century and has been used to mean various things since that time. Few politicians or political groups describe themselves as “populists”, and in political discourse the term is often applied to others pejoratively….

[T]he ideational approach … defines populism as an ideology which presents “the people” as a morally good force against “the elite”, who are perceived as corrupt and self-serving. Populists differ in how “the people” are defined, but it can be based along class, ethnic, or national lines. Populists typically present “the elite” as comprising the political, economic, cultural, and media establishment, all of which are depicted as a homogenous entity and accused of placing the interests of other groups—such as foreign countries or immigrants—above the interests of “the people”. According to this approach, populism is a thin-ideology which is combined with other, more substantial thick ideologies such as nationalism, liberalism, or socialism. Thus, populists can be found at different locations along the left–right political spectrum and there is both left-wing populism and right-wing populism.

Just as “the elite” isn’t homogeneous, neither is “the people”. True populism therefore demands a decentralized polity, according to the principle of subsidiarity:

[M]atters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority. Political decisions should be taken at a local level if possible, rather than by a central authority.

This is a conservative principle because deciding matters locally means that they are usually handled in accordance with social norms that prevail locally, and which reflect local conditions. This is in contrast with one-size-fits-all “solutions” imposed by distant officials who have no appreciation of local knowledge and norms, and who — in any event — are usually hostile to those things.

Subsidiarity is also, in theory, a libertarian principle. Too many self-styled libertarians, however, are quick to abandon the principle in favor of state-imposed rules that favor their views about how “society” should be organized. Thus — and to the detriment of social comity and stability — we have state-imposed abortion, a state-imposed edict to honor same-sex “marriage”, state-imposed “tolerance” of unsafe sexual acts, the rending of families by lax divorce laws, and on and on.

It is populist resentment of elite dominance that enabled Trump’s electoral victory. “Drain the swamp” is a good part of it. The rest is mainly a desire for the preservation (or restoration) of traditional American culture, the protection of which requires selective immigration and strong defenses.

The principle and spirit of populism — and its enemies — is captured by Bertrand de Jouvenel in his 1945 epic, On Power: The Natural History of its Growth:

Every Power is sure to attack centrifugal tendencies. But the behaviour of democratic Power offers in this respect some peculiar features of a striking kind. It claims its mission to be that of liberating man from the constraints put on him by the old Power, which was the more or less direct descendant of conquest. But that did not stop the Convention from guillotining the Federalists [in the French Revolution], the English Parliament from wiping out, in some of the bloodiest repressions of history, the separatist nationalism in Ireland, or the government at Washington from launching a war such as Europe had never yet seen to crush the attempt of the Southern States to form themselves into a separate unity….

This hostility to the formation of smaller communities is inconsistent with the claim to have inaugurated government of the people by itself, for clearly a government answers more closely to that description in smaller communities than in larger. Only in smaller communities can citizens choose their ruler directly from men whom they know personally. Only in them can justification be found for the encomium pronounced by Montesquieu:

The people is well fitted to choose …. The people knows well whether a man has often seen active service and what successes he has won: therefore it is well equipped to choose a general. It knows whether a judge attends to his duties; whether most people leave his court satisfied; whether or not he is corrupt: therein is knowledge sufficient for it to elect a praetor…. These are all facts which make a public square a better-informed place than the palace of a king.

But the new men whom the popular voice has made masters of the imperium have never shown any inclination to a regime of that kind. It was distasteful to them, as the heirs of the monarchical authority, to fritter away their estate on subordinating themselves. On the contrary, strong in the strength of a new legitimacy, their one aim was to increase it. Against the federalist conception [the Abbe] Sieyès [1748-1836] was their mouthpiece: “… a general administration which, starting from a common centre, will reach uniformly to the remotest parts of the Empire — a body of laws which, through its elements are provided by the body of citizens, takes bodily form at as distant a level as that of the National Assembly, to whom alone it belongs to interpret the general wish, that wish which thereafter falls with all the weight of an irresistible force on those very wills which have joined in the formation of it.” [Liberty Press edition (1993), pp. 286-288, links added, emphasis in original]

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.