Lease this WebApp and get rid of the ads.
No Subject
Sat Apr 14, 2018 12:41pm

Jonah Goldberg

Suicide of the West
Don’t put the miracle of liberal-democratic capitalism at risk

Freedom is a fragile thing and is never more than one generation away from extinction. It is not ours by inheritance; it must be fought for and defended constantly by each generation, for it comes only once to a people. Those who have known freedom and then lost it have never known it again.

— Ronald Reagan, 1967

Let’s begin with some somewhat unusual assertions for these pages.

Capitalism is unnatural. Democracy is unnatural. Human rights are unnatural. God didn’t give us these things, or anything else. We stumbled into modernity accidentally, not by any divine plan.

When the Founders said “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, . . .” they cheated. It is not self-evident that our Creator endowed humans with unalienable rights. Something self-evident is, by definition, obvious, needing no demonstration. The existence of gravity is obvious. It is self-evident that fire burns. Yet it’s hardly obvious to everyone there’s even a Creator.

And that brings me to another assertion: There is no God, at least not in this argument. I assert this not because I’m an atheist (I’m not), but because I don’t want God’s help for my case. “Because God says so” is the greatest appeal to authority, and the appeal to authority is a classic logical fallacy, effective only for those who are pre-committed to that authority. You can’t persuade an atheist that God’s on your side any more than you can persuade a Christian you’re right because Baal says so.

Yet today’s political culture increasingly rejects persuasion, recognized as far back as Aristotle as the essence of politics. Everything noble about the Enlightenment assumes the possibility of persuasion, through reason, evidence, and argument. Our political system was designed to be deliberative. Deliberation is a waste of time if minds cannot be changed. But today, partisans left and right value purity and passion over persuasion. Opponents aren’t potential converts; they’re an abstract and unredeemable them, and their tears, we’re told, are delicious.

William F. Buckley Jr. founded National Review to match the Left’s best arguments head-on with the Right’s best arguments. We didn’t win every battle (and some battles we didn’t deserve to win), but conservatism’s strength and success derived from a fearless desire to argue the merits. National Review has stayed loyal to that mission, but much of the conservative movement it helped create has resorted to assertion over argument, invective over reason. I want my argument to persuade those who don’t already agree with me — on the left and, increasingly, on the right.

Those who hate capitalism, scorn the Founding, and assume that Western civilization is inherently villainous or oppressive will be persuaded they are wrong only by arguments on terms they accept. And today, those terms are secular, often atheist, materialistic, Darwinian, and utilitarian. So let’s meet them on their turf.

Humans are animals. We evolved from other animals, who evolved from ever more embarrassing animals, and before that from a humiliating sea of primitive critters in the primordial stew. Almost everything we take for granted today — technology, prosperity, medicine, human rights, the rule of law — is a novel, unnatural environment for humans, created by humans.

Joshua Greene of Harvard’s Moral Cognition Laboratory offers a useful thought experiment (which I’ve modified slightly). Imagine you were an alien monitoring the progress of Homo sapiens on backwater Earth, visiting once every 10,000 years.

Starting 250,000 years ago, you would record the following:

Visit 1: Bands of semi-hairless, upright, nomadic apes foraging and fighting for food.

Visit 2: Bands of semi-hairless, upright, nomadic apes foraging and fighting for food. No change.

Visit 3: Bands of semi-hairless, upright, nomadic apes foraging and fighting for food. No change.

You’d write virtually the same thing roughly 23 times over 230,000 years, a few modestly interesting details about changes in migration, diet, and crude tools notwithstanding. On the 24th visit, you’d note some remarkable developments. Many scattered human populations have discovered basic agriculture and animal domestication. Some use metal for weapons and tools. Clay pottery has advanced considerably. Rudimentary mud and grass shelters dot some landscapes (introducing a fairly recent concept in human history: the home). But there are no roads, no stone buildings.

Still, an impressive advance in such a short time: merely 100 centuries.

Returning 10,000 years later, your spaceship would doubtless get spotted by NORAD. You might even arrive in time to see Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction.

In short: Nearly all of humanity’s progress has transpired in the last 10,000 years.

But even this is misleading. It’s like saying that the combined net worth of Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, and me exceeds $150 billion. For 97 percent of that 10,000 years, nearly all of humanity lived in squalor. If the Garden of Eden existed, it was a slum.

Almost everything about modernity, progress, and enlightened society emerged in the last 300 years. If the last 200,000 years of humanity were one year, nearly all material progress came in the last 14 hours. In the West, and everywhere that followed our example, incomes rose, lifespans grew, toil lessened, energy and water became ubiquitous commodities.

Virtually every objective, empirical measure that capitalism’s critics value improved with the emergence of Western liberal-democratic capitalism. Did it happen overnight? Sadly, no. But in evolutionary terms, it did.

Among economists and anthropologists, this is “settled science.” Economists left and right might bicker over minor details, but they agree that poverty is man’s natural environment. As economist Todd G. Buchholz puts it, “For most of man’s life on earth, he has lived no better on two legs than he had on four.” Nobel Prize–winning economist Douglass C. North and his colleagues write in Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History that “over the long stretch of human history before 1800, the evidence suggests that the long-run rate of growth of per capita income was very close to zero.” Economic historian David S. Landes is not exaggerating when he writes, “The Englishman of 1750 was closer in material things to Caesar’s legionnaires than to his own great-grandchildren.” For roughly 7,500 generations, everywhere in the world — ancient China and Rome, medieval Europe and Aztec-era Mexico — the average person lived on the equivalent of $3 per day.

Of course, material prosperity isn’t everything. But the progress didn’t stop there. Rapes, deaths by violence and disease, slavery, illiteracy, torture have all declined massively, while rights for women, minorities, the disabled have expanded dramatically. And, with the exception of slavery, which is a more recent human innovation made possible by the agricultural revolution, material misery was natural and normal for us. Then suddenly, almost overnight, that changed.

What happened? We stumbled into a different world. Following sociologist Robin Fox and historian Ernest Gellner, I call this different world “the Miracle.”

I say “Miracle” because it evokes a glorious but inexplicable mystery, not because it was bequeathed by the Almighty (if God intended us to have free markets and property rights and democracy, He sure waited a while to bequeath them). Nobody knows why the Miracle happened. Or, more accurately, no one can agree on why it happened. Marxists credit surplus capital derived from the industrial revolution, slavery, imperialism, and so on. Others attribute it to the scientific revolution or the Protestant Reformation. I address these theories in my new book Suicide of the West. But in brief: While some factor greatly in the story, none can sufficiently demystify the Miracle.

Ultimately, no theory of the Miracle alters its accidental nature. Marx’s “science” of historical inevitability is nonsense, an appeal to authority equivalent to invoking divine providence. Marxist development theories are deus ex machina arguments sans deus. Even so, Marxism itself concedes that human will didn’t create liberal-democratic capitalism; rather, the theory claims it’s an epiphenomenon arising from the dialectical clash of inevitable historical forces.

Or consider a more plausible theory, associated with Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism: Capitalism emerged from a Reformation-initiated theological reorientation, specifically among some Puritan sects. These pious Protestants modeled certain virtues — “thrift,” “delayed gratification,” “industriousness” — that eventually created the surplus capital to jump-start industry.

Like Christianity generally, Protestantism surely helped enable the Miracle, but this theory is wrong — or at least insufficiently right. John Calvin didn’t invent thrift or hard work. But, as with Marxism, the Weberian thesis is correct: Capitalism is still an accident. Puritan preachers didn’t hawk a “prosperity gospel.” Indeed, they preached nearly the opposite: that if you lived piously and honestly it might signify you were among the Elect destined for Heaven. It just turned out that this guidance also made you likelier to become wealthy. Thus, the Weberian thesis (which Weber later rejected) holds that capitalism was an accidental unintended by-product of the Protestant ethic.

Why stress that the Miracle was both unnatural and accidental? Because Western civilization generally, and America particularly, is on a suicidal path. The threats are many, but beneath them all is one constant, eternal seducer: human nature. Modernity often assumes that we’ve conquered human nature as much as we’ve conquered the natural world. The truth is we’ve done neither. We simply restrain each from generation to generation. If you’ve ever owned a boat, car, or house, you know that nature needs only time and opportunity to reclaim everything. Rust doesn’t sleep. Termites respect a grandfather clock no more than an outhouse. Abandon a car in a field, and all nature requires to turn it back to the soil is time. Preventing decay and entropy from reclaiming everything built by human hands requires vigilant upkeep. As Horace said, “You may drive nature out with a pitchfork, but she will keep coming back.”

What is true of physical things is also true of civilizations. And the termite threatening the Miracle’s foundations is human nature itself. Today, we understand corruption as petty graft or bribery. This barely shows the deep cultural significance the concept once held. Before the scientific revolution, corruption was one of life’s central metaphors. When food rotted, when wounds were infected, it was corruption, because nature reclaimed what was hers.

And when humans gave in to their true natures, this was corruption, too. Judaism and Christianity consider human nature sordid and dangerous. Turning to God requires turning away from our natures, particularly the flesh’s “corruptions.” In Christianity, the worldly can corrupt. “You adulterous people!” exclaims the Epistle of James. “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.”

Nearly all of our laws and customs, from marriage and prohibition of murder to the concept of merit, restrain human nature. For instance, nepotism and favoritism are natural. People prefer family and friends in every society that has ever existed. Westerners often consider developing countries such as Afghanistan corrupt because their political systems proceed from tribal reciprocity. But Afghans and others argue that their ways are ancient and natural. And they’re right. Our system of merit, contracts, blind bidding, etc. is what’s unnatural.

The story of Western civilization, and really civilization itself, is the story of productively sublimating human nature. The Catholic Church had to establish elaborate rules against familial favoritism. We get the word “nepotism” from the Italian nepotismo, which referred to popes’ and bishops’ installing “nephews” (their children and other relatives) in powerful positions throughout the Church. The Chinese and the Turks castrated bureaucrats and slave soldiers, vainly hoping to constrain human nature.

Such tactics worked, temporarily. But groups’ natural tendency to assert their self-interest made such techniques untenable. That is because we’re wired with a “coalition instinct,” an evolutionary adaptation from millennia in which our species sought safety in the tribe against other tribes (as pioneering evolutionary psychologist John Tooby has written). This coalition instinct forms the heart of what people mean by the modern American rise of “tribalism.” Every kind of identity politics — from racial solidarity to ethno-nationalism to ancient notions of hereditary nobility — feeds off this instinct. According to Yale’s Paul Bloom, “neither race nor language is necessary to sort people into coalitions. . . . It takes very little to make a coalition that really matters: to establish group loyalty, to pit people against one another.”

Tribalism explains why liberals decry the anti-Semitism of David Duke or the alt-right but meekly excuse Louis Farrakhan, why Evangelicals excused Roy Moore while pushing Al Franken from the Senate. And it explains why many conservatives have changed many longstanding positions to accommodate President Trump. Trump is in the tribe. Indeed, he’s created his own tribe, in which he’s a symbol, a totem, an avatar of the tribal us. That is why many of his supporters insist that insulting him is insulting them. For the Left, and for some on the right, the dogma-bending power of this personality cult was shocking. But the often messianic devotion to Barack Obama also stunned the Right. That’s the thing about the coalition instinct: Inside the tribe, you’ll think the rules differ for your teammates.

The Founders closely studied human nature, recognizing the dangers of despots and despotic majorities alike. They knew that humans would coalesce around common interests, forming “factions.” They also understood that you can’t repeal human nature. So, unlike their French contemporaries, they didn’t try. Instead, they established our system of separated powers and enumerated rights so that no faction, including a passionate majority, could use the state’s power against other factions.

But the Founders’ vision assumed many preconditions, the two most important of which were the people’s virtue and the role of civil society. “The general government . . . can never be in danger of degenerating into a monarchy, an oligarchy, an aristocracy, or any despotic or oppressive form so long as there is any virtue in the body of the people,” George Washington argued.

People learn virtue first and most importantly from family, and then from the myriad institutions family introduces them to: churches, schools, associations, etc. Every generation, Western civilization is invaded by barbarians, Hannah Arendt observed: “We call them children.” Civil society, starting with the family, civilizes barbarians, providing meaning, belonging, and virtue.

    • human nature from life's equation. That's precisely where Christianity comes in. Anyone that's serious about Christianity knows that's the basis of Christianity. You know who and what you are. You're ... more
    • Suicide of the West: Part 2 ~ Merlin, Sat Apr 14 12:59pm
      But here’s the hitch. When that ecosystem breaks down, people still seek meaning and belonging. And it is breaking down. Its corruption comes from reasons too numerous and complex to detail here, but ... more
      • So much convoluted opinionations. ~ G👧🏽G, Sat Apr 14 2:30pm
        Gravity might be obvious but how it exists as a force is written down on paper. God-given rights, like the RIGHT to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness must be spelled out so those seeking to ... more
        • ZOOM! ~ TW, Sat Apr 14 6:46pm
          That's the sound of the article going way over your head. Did you even read it? It does not appear that you did.
          • Speed read the Part 1 ~ GAG, Sun Apr 15 7:00am
            Ignored apart 2. Way too long. I have a life, too, besides this board. Frankly I find many of Merlin's articles to be mass mind fvks.
            • Sometimes when I hastily comment I often end up being less than correct. Sometimes there’s a lot here to consume. Other times, not so much. Sometimes it’s worth the considered read. Other times spee... more
              • Yes, it all goes without saying. ~ GAG, Sun Apr 15 12:10pm
                But I use a cell phone. My eyes are not 15 years old. Sometimes I have a headache. I try to moderate the stress on my brain and optic nerves.
  • Click here to receive daily updates