Nothing is pre-ordained. Whether our society thrives or is reclaimed by natural forces is a choice that we must make. It is a choice between the unnatural and the natural. Approximately 300 years ago, in a small corner of the Eurasian landmass, humans accidentally discovered a new way of organizing society and contemplating our universe. This revolution of thought led humankind into a new world, one which Jonah Goldberg calls “the Miracle.” This new space was inspired by the Lockean Revolution—a movement which emphasized the ideas that the individual is sovereign, rights come from God not government, equality before the law, and ownership of the products of our labor. Capitalism, democracy and human rights are unnatural and we stumbled upon them accidentally.
Homo Sapiens has been around for 200-300 thousand years, and for the vast majority of that time we have lived in small tribal groups; dealing with politics, religion and economics on a personal basis. We developed a strong “coalition instinct” that helps us to build alliances based on loyalty and reciprocity. Our sense of self in relation to the universe and others was defined by the tribe through which we worked cooperatively to survive. Meaning was inseparable from the tribe, the collective, and we are strongly wired with an “us vs. them” mentality. Yet, evolution works over large periods of time, meaning that we share most of the same genetic programming with our earlier ancestors.
All humans come pre-loaded with naturally evolved drives and instincts, and it is against these drives and instincts that we must struggle to maintain order. For just as the natural world hates a vacuum and will fill it given the chance, human nature rushes in to fill the gaps where we have failed to civilize people.
Liberalism (i.e. the Enlightenment understanding of natural rights and limited government), unlike all ancient systems and totalitarianism, does not provide people with the meaning we all crave. It creates an environment through which we may pursue meaning. It opens the door so that civil society, the middle ground between the individual and the state, can transform people from barbarians to civil humans. The secret recipe for maintaining “the Miracle” is in resisting the corrupting forces of human nature. Given that we are born barbarians, every generation must learn for itself that the system we have inherited is the best in human history. It requires that we have appreciation for the good (and revolutionary) aspects of our society and a clear perspective on where we come from as a species. If we don’t have appreciation, the entropy that decays all things will reclaim our world.
Suicide of the West breaks down into three untitled sections and fourteen chapters (not including an introduction and conclusion). This is a summary of Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy.
The concept of God as an actor in human affairs has no place in this book. This is not to say that the idea of God doesn’t have a profound impact on how people think and act. Goldberg is not an atheist, but for the sake of the argument being made, God is not a factor. Instead, Goldberg opts for an argument grounded in reason and decency within a space created by the Enlightenment where people can disagree about the nature of God and what is expected of us.
Goldberg introduces the reader to his assumptions and the relevant facts associated with his argument. He begins by assuming that most of the crucial realities concerning good and evil, freedom and tyranny, are not self-evident, but are discoverable (humans would’ve had a much more peaceful history if such things were self-evident). He claims that best practices have been discovered by trial and error over thousands of years. He addresses the illusory nature of free will and concludes that regardless of the reality, humans must operate as though it exists. And he emphasizes that what has happened was not destined, but the result of human actors.
Yet, Goldberg is not arguing in favor of nihilism or moral relativism. In fact, he claims that some cultures are simply better than others given that some, “allow more people to live happy, prosperous, meaningful lives without harming other people in the process” (6). It is this fact that requires us to push for a better society, to defend the lessons of humanity and to be grateful for all we have achieved.
The natural state of man is impoverished, violent and results in untimely death. About 300 years ago that all changed with an explosion of human progress. A radical shift in attitudes and thinking birthed a new world, and for the first time in our existence we were challenged more with the problem of surplus over survival. With the advent of liberalism (including capitalism), the state was finally more than a glorified criminal establishment. The important point here is that this new way of organizing society is unnatural whereas the tyranny, monarchy and authoritarianism of the past have something about them that humans find natural.
Money gets a bad rap, but it beautifully illustrates the breakdown of our natural state for a higher order. Money lowers the bar for positive human interaction. Instead of seeing someone outside the tribe as the “other,” money allows us to see them as a customer. Human interactions were no longer zero-sum, and thus, violence lessens as commerce fills the hole left behind. It tears down the barriers of caste and class and expands the definition of “us” for the sake of broader cooperation.
Yet, the tribal life is intensely seductive. There is a deep sense of isolation among many in the liberal system of the Western world. The tribal life calls to us via a primitive yawp and it tells us that there is something deeply wrong with the world. This inner voice tells us that society is unsatisfying, oppressive, exploitative and without authenticity or meaning. At its core, such romanticism emphasizes the primacy of feelings and tells us that someone must be responsible for the state of things (a pattern reflected in Marx and Hitler).
The fatal flaw of the capitalist order is that it doesn’t feel like it’s improving our lives. But there is no better way. Following the primitive call is easy and natural, whereas the liberal way takes a lot of maintenance to preserve. The assumptions at the heart of “the Miracle” can’t be improved upon and no other system besides capitalism creates wealth.
In a liberal order, civil society takes the place of the state for defining meaning. When the institutions of civil society fail, human nature rushes in to claim what was hers. Consider the breakdown of the family. For thousands of years, where the institution of family fails, young men from all walks of life join gangs. These provide meaning and belonging and operate via “us vs. them” logic. It is this pull of the primitive, the draw of entropy that we must resist for the flourishing of society and its institutions. Goldberg calls this decay “corruption.” The reemergence of populisms and nationalisms in our current society are products of this corruption. When we fail to be grateful we open this door to decay.
The existence of human nature is less disputed among those who study it and more so among those who don’t. Humans inherently come with a great deal of genetic software. We are born with a lot of programming about empathy, altruism, cooperation and other moral intuitions. These “moral taste buds,” as Goldberg calls them, can be used differently depending on the environment and the definition of morality. Additionally, two universal human tendencies—the desire for unity and distrust of strangers—probably can’t be muted out of us, but can be channeled to greater productivity. We cannot eliminate human nature, but we can direct it to better ends.
The drive to hate is hardwired into us as much as the drive to love. It is the role of the family, schools and society to teach us what we should and should not hate. Among the things that we are supposed to hate is evil, but evil has been defined quite broadly over the years. Civilizations are experienced in refining the definition of evil. What is consistent among every culture is the defining of things it hates and loves and what is consistent in every political ideology is the categorization of a group it considers “the Other.”
An interesting feature of modern American life is the taboo against discussing human nature. While there are various reasons for this, one that requires particular attention is the idea of the noble savage. To the proponents of this idea, humankind is selfless, peaceful and untroubled in its natural state. Civilization introduces greed, anxiety and violence. This romanticism holds that modern society is unnatural and dehumanizing and glorifies supposed past “golden ages.” It is neither right nor left, but a pre-rational passion driving modern “reactionary” politics, nationalism, populism and radicalism. It holds onto the insight that civilization is a form of institutionalized violence, but fails to recognize the violent and destitute human situation of the past. Today, the twentieth century is noted for being the bloodiest in history. Yet, if we extrapolate the death rate of pre-historic times to the twentieth century, the death toll would’ve been two billion as opposed to 100 million. This is due to the fact that one-third of primitive humans living in small societies died from raids and fights alone. “The evidence for mankind’s blood-soaked past can be found in the archaeological record, DNA analysis, the writings of ancient commentators and historians, and the firsthand reports of those remaining in societies that have so far resisted modernity” (31).
The infamous anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon lived among Yanomami people—an indigenous tribe in the Amazon—for long periods. He described their state as one of “chronic warfare.” Motivations for such violence usually centered around the theft of women. He found little evidence supporting the idea that most primitive warfare revolved around competition for scarce resources. The reality is that war is often the result of pride, honor, and a desire for status. Yet, our barbaric past is not limited to war; slavery and torture are also recurring themes.
Slavery is of particular interest. Due to the poorer state of humankind prior to the agricultural revolution, slavery was actually less prevalent. Then following the agricultural revolution it sprouts up nearly everywhere. Yet, despite the presence of slavery from ancient Greece to China, nowhere was it hypocritical until the emergence of the United States. For nowhere else enshrined universal human rights in their founding documents. Given the context, what is especially remarkable is not the fact of American slavery, but the fact that America ended it. And it was industrial capitalism that ultimately destroyed it. Philosophers such as Adam Smith recognized not only the moral problem of slavery, but the financial as well—that slavery is ultimately more expensive than the labor of free men. Within a free market, people have the autonomy to sell their services and labor—a radical shift from the slavery and forced labor common in most ancient civilizations.
But just as greed is a natural human tendency, altruism, and the compassion that drives it, are as well. Closely related is: gift exchange, reciprocity and cooperation. Gift exchange and reciprocity governed the economy of our primitive ancestors before money. Early humans had to learn to share resources to survive. Reciprocity became a norm through which altruism worked. Those who were generous were admired and received authority over others.
Closely linked to admiration is status, of which sociologists distinguish two types—ascribed and achieved. Ascribed status refers to the belief that some people are simply intrinsically better than others thanks to their parents. Royalty is the perfect example of ascribed status, and although we have abandoned it in the United States, one only needs to look at our political dynasties and “Hollywood royalty” to recognize that our proclivity for inherited status is still strong. We find that the instincts closely related to status—authority and hierarchy—are found in nearly every species that lives in groups.
This brings us to another universal aspect of human nature—the need for and enforcement of norms. Humans evolved in groups which required cooperation, and cooperation is impossible without norms and rules. The disproportionate anger we may feel with someone cutting the line at the grocery store is illustrative of our reaction to norm violation. While a norm violation at the grocery store is not so harmful, a violation on the African savannah might be, and so we react strongly for good reason.
Just as the tribe may succeed in cooperating and thereby pass on its genes to future generations, various factions within the tribe will work together to form coalitions—and thus, the rise of politics.
Another crucial aspect of our nature is our creation of meaning. We give things significance beyond the rational and material, and prior to the scientific revolution such meaning was layered; e.g. a tree is a source of fuel, a resource for shelter and has a divine purpose. Yet we compartmentalized, putting religion, entertainment, food and politics in its own place. It was in separating out the practical from transcendent, this division of mental labor that produced such prosperity, reduction in violence, cures for diseases, and the elimination of superstition. Yet, seeing the world this way is unnatural. It is the romantic who wants to tear down the walls of compartmentalization, the walls of modernity and restore meaning and purpose.
All civilizations form rules for the channeling of human nature to more productive ends. Yet when man’s laws dissolve, nature’s laws are ready to fill the void. This is properly known as corruption. When a society becomes decadent it has given itself to the power of entropy, and as implied by the word “decadent,” has given into natural decay. We all see violence as a step backwards, but really it is decay to the natural state of human savagery. While notions of virtue differ in place and time, it is the concept of adhering to a moral code over base instincts that often drives people to living a nobler life, and this takes courage.
Historians and political scientists focus on elites for the simple reason that they hold most of the power. And the story of the elites is a familiar one—they fold to the temptations of human nature disrupting the integrity of civilization. It is easy to blame elites for our problems, but the corruption of masses can destroy civilizations as well, for all are human and therefore subject to the sway of human nature. And who’s to say that the problems that plague the current top one percent wouldn’t plague the new one percent?
Nepotism is of particular interest and a good example of the struggle between civilization and human nature. Every primitive society was governed by a network of family alliances and all empires were held in place by such a network of blood and marriage relatives. This often resulted in the rewarding of family and friends and the enrichment of oneself at the public’s expense. Empires sometimes went to the extreme to reign in these impulses. Using eunuchs as aides and servants was common and justified by the idea that a man without a family wouldn’t be tempted to enrich his family. The Ottoman Empire made slaves out of Christian children based on the same logic to create a slave empire ruled by the slaves. Given time, these people will see themselves as cohesive groups, a caste or aristocratic class. This tendency toward unity is neural and these groups only become threatening, “When they claim the power of the state for their own agenda” (59). The founders were prepared for this and two of the remedies they came up with were virtue and pluralism. Virtue has been discussed, but pluralism is the idea that power needs to be distributed widely in society.
One may attribute to the multiplicity of institutions the healthy and modern societies we live in. When there are only a handful of stakeholders in society, power is defined by the relationships between these elites. When there are many institutions in a society, the relationship between elites becomes impersonal and thus, politics through such personal relationships becomes impossible. This inevitably gives birth to the rule of law—law that applies equally to elites and the masses.
Even greater than this plurality of institutions is the plurality of meaning and identity within each person. Modernity is dependent on this. When identity is bound up in a single group, concern for other institutions or people diminishes or disappears. The multiple allegiances that pluralism makes opens us to the idea that those in different sectors are not enemies. It creates the space for the free pursuit of individual interests. We may have weaker attachments to any specific identity, but this is the price of peace and freedom.
The most important mental division of labor is the separating of the, “external, impersonal, order of contracts, commerce, and law and the personal order of family, friends, and community” (62). We live in both of these realms simultaneously, yet the rules within each couldn’t be more different. The imposition of the rules of the family on this realm of commerce and law is the greatest force for the corruption of modernity.
How did we move from the hunter-gatherer phase of our existence to the state? A plethora of thinkers have cited “the social contract” as the beginning of modern society. This idea has variations, but the general concept is that men in a state of nature agree to sacrifice some of their autonomy for security. The problem is that prior to the Enlightenment, there is no proof that anyone actually came together to agree upon such a resolution.
The first social contract (to the extent that one existed) was with “the stationary bandit.” After the agricultural revolution, roving bandits would come through and steal any surplus of grain, weapons, tools, children, women, etc. They would slaughter the men and move on. The increase of these roving bandits during this time is easily traceable to the fact that humans were no longer nomadic and a moving target is harder to hit. But by ravaging these agricultural communities of all their value, the people of such communities learned to not make long-term investments. Thus, when the roving bandits returned there was nothing left for them to take—leaving both those in the community and the bandits poorer overall.
The solution to this cycle was the stationary bandit who stole through extortion (i.e. taxation). He would offer protection from the roving bandits and take just enough to leave the people with something, and to encourage them to save. He may even invest in the community. The order and predictability that ensues has been called “the first blessing of the invisible hand.” This term, coined by Adam Smith, describes the social benefits that build when individuals are left to pursue their own self-interests. Society grows richer as if guided by an invisible hand.
But how we got from the stationary bandit to the state is a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg question. What we know is that “competitive states” emerge to counter the threat of a state already in existence. Thus, in a sense, it was war that made the state. Population size is another factor in the creation of states though. When a society is provided security and order, certain patterns emerge. For instance, labor becomes more specialized and property rights become more secure which produces more wealth. More wealth and security translates to a larger population and a larger population provides more wealth and security—it is a virtuous cycle.
The agricultural revolution led to class distinctions as humans specialized professionally and people, dealing with surplus, acquired storable wealth. But how does the state keep so many people in their roles? Storable wealth is a means of social control, but the state also uses coercion. In fact, it wouldn’t be a state without some means of enforcing its rules. Yet no state is held together purely by the threat of violence, ideology is also necessary.
In the history of human coercion and cooperation, perhaps no advancement was greater than that of writing. Record keeping is necessary for trade and taxation and the human memory isn’t enough to handle such demands. The ancient Sumerians devised writing as a form of bookkeeping and it didn’t take long before this system developed into a system of law giving. The Code of Hammurabi that followed had 282 laws concerning violence, commerce and social status; it was the operating system for a large cooperation network. The predictable use of violence was a huge benefit to security and order. Threats from the outside, handled by the military, evolved into police protection from internal threats. “Indeed laws are often lagging rather than leading indicators, formalizing what had been an informal rule for a very long time” (80). The brilliance of the code lies in the fact that it universalized informal rules and customs of the underlying culture.
The state exists simply because we say it does. Our belief in it sustains it. When a state falls apart (like the Soviet Union), where is the evidence that it’s actually gone? The buildings are still there. The reality is that the state is a fiction agreed upon. Civilization itself is composed of countless stories we tell ourselves. There is no intrinsic value to money, but we act as if there is, because we respect that story. We tell ourselves that human rights come from God so as to make them real, but where is the evidence? If human rights come from government, then are we not opening ourselves up to the arbitrary dictates of the state?
At its most rudimentary level an institution is a rule. Before it was a rule it was a story, and the most important story, and mother of so many others, is religion. Religion is a way to get many strangers to cooperate; it provides meaning and reason for behaving a particular way. Large populations need a story and the ones that work grapple with the human desire for a father figure. Monarchy or some form of aristocracy with a father figure at the top dominated nearly all human society until 1800. Priests are called father for a reason. Monarchy is natural or else it wouldn’t have provided a stable form of government for thousands of years.
The miracle of modernity lies in the division of labor in our own minds. The tribal mind wants to remove this division and restore mass meaning to society. But mass meaning is impossible now if we are to preserve the thriving ecosystem of institutions that give us meaning and secure liberty and prosperity.
Starting in Europe in the 1700s and spreading all over the world, people were living longer, had more leisure, ate better and enjoyed delicacies that were previously unknown to them. Some call this the Great Enrichment or the Great Divergence, but given that it defies explanation, Goldberg prefers the Miracle. Not that there aren’t many explanations for how it came about, but no one can seem to agree. But the question of where it comes from literally can best be answered with the phrase: “England did it.”
England clumsily discovered the idea that government ought to be subject to the law, but that the law ought not to be subject to the government. The security of property and contract was created by the rule of law and this led to modern capitalism.
England was fantastically weird. Goldberg turns to Daniel Hannan who identifies five aspects to England’s weirdness that ultimately led to the Miracle. (1) The nation-state: the Miracle needed a degree of order in which laws are generally applied uniformly and the population has cohesiveness through shared identity. (2) Healthy civil society: to root society and serve as a counterbalance to the arbitrary power of the state. (3) Island geography: England was less militarized due to the natural protection that’s provided by being an island. Additionally, due to this fact, there was less need for political absolutism which arises from the need to protect the people from external war. (4) Religious pluralism: religious domination is a deterrent to innovation. (5) Common law: this unique system led to the state being subject to the people. This may be a strong case for “why England?” But modernity emerged only once, so it is impossible to know exactly why it happened there.
Yet, we should not overlook the contributions of the great merchant republic of the Netherlands, which emerged as a competitive state with England. Through demonstration and experiment, liberal ideas spread rapidly throughout the rest of Europe in the eighteenth century.
J. R. Maddicott draws a line from the ancient Germanic tribes of England to the Magna Carta to British democracy today. The ancient Roman historian Tacitus noted that among Germanic tribes, there was a social compact between ruler and ruled. This tradition was wiped out on mainland Europe, but survived on England possibly due to its island geography.
Another oddity of England is that aristocracy and land ownership was different. For one, the strong men of England didn’t comprise a hereditary caste with legal privileges—they were subject to the law like everyone else. Additionally, the right to “alienate” property—to sell or leave it to those who are not family—was rooted in English common law dating back to the early 1500s. Deductive Roman law—determining a principle, writing it down and imposing it—never took root in England as it did in mainland Europe. Instead, common law bubbled up from society as an emergent property. Common law or judge-made law deals with actual judgments passed down, then modifies them in light of the specific circumstances. And the rights of all Englishmen were recognized by English common law.
But it’s important to recognize that the Magna Carta succeeded formal institutions of common law. Similarly the U.S. Constitution embodied specific aspects of the culture and time, a manifestation of our allegiance to liberty and limited government. Part of the genius of the American founding is that it derived universal principles from cultural particularities and then wrote them down.
For many Marxists, the mass-scale exploitation inherent in slavery is a necessary component for capitalism. Marx argued that without slavery you have no cotton and without cotton you have no industry. This ignores the fact that cotton prices barely increased after the abolition of slavery (and were in fact considerably cheaper in the 1870s). Additionally, anti-capitalist societies are more prone to slavery. And why has capitalism survived so well in a society without slavery?
Also, we can’t we attribute capitalism to scientific advancement. The Islamic world and China both had their turns as leaders of science, yet capitalism didn’t emerge there. Another claim is that thrift was the cause. But, this gets the causality backwards. Capital accumulation is the by-product of capitalism not the reason for it. People have saved since money has been around, but prior to the market system the potential uses of that money was extremely restricted.
The point here is that we can’t isolate a single cause for the Miracle and no one intended it. So where does it come from? Goldberg seconds the argument put forward by Deirdre McCloskey in claiming that “the Miracle is an attitude, expressed in new ideas and the rhetoric that accompanies them” (106). Attitudes changed and not just among the intellectuals and aristocracy, but also among the bourgeois. For millennia, various groups built alliances to stifle innovation. But then people started talking as though betterment and innovation where no longer heresy.
And yet, Christianity may have been a necessary ingredient for a couple of reasons. Firstly, Christianity separated life into two realms: the City of God and the City of Man. This mental division of labor not only served to check the arbitrary power of kings, it provided the space necessary for institutional pluralism and the multiplicity of meaning. Secondly, individual rights may find its origins as Protestantism emphasized the individual conscience and eliminated the need for a middle man in dealing with God.
If capitalism’s birth is rooted in the capacity of words and ideas, then its demise is as well. For whatever we think ourselves into we can think ourselves out of. Before delving into what Goldberg considers the most persuasive argument for the demise of capitalism, we must first look at Karl Marx.
According to Marx all economic value comes from the working class. The value of any good or service is not determined in the market, but is determined by the amount of time and effort put into its production—Marx’s “labor theory of value.” One day the workers of the world would overthrow their masters and usher in a new utopian world much like that of the noble savage. Marx’s vision was romantic, and for all its modern-sounding, pseudo-scientific jargon, it was simply an encapsulation of ancient ideas. But beyond that, Marx was simply wrong. That an entrepreneur creates no value by bringing new ideas to the world is absurd.
Marx was particularly off in his political and sociological analysis. Goldberg turns to Joseph Schumpeter to explain why. Like Marx, Schumpeter believed capitalism would inevitably fail, but his reasoning as to why differed completely. Schumpeter described the process of “creative destruction” whereby the economy is constantly evolving—a business may one day be a monopoly only to be taken over the next. Schumpeter applied this process to capitalism itself, and suggested that a social analogue to this creative destruction would be its downfall.
Goldberg highlights three ingredients of Schumpeter’s analysis relevant to his argument. First, due to rationality and efficiency, capitalism washes away tradition and ritual regardless of its social value. Eventually capitalism will turn on its own institutions on which it depends. The free market itself relies on “extra-capitalist” customs and traditions—i.e. moral and sentimental attachments that reveal to us there is more than efficiency and profit maximization. Particular cultural features are necessary for the generation of capitalism and its viability depends on certain habits. And no institution succeeds or fails with the theory provided for its support, but is dependent on our faith in it. This includes democracy itself and our own constitutional order.
Secondly, Schumpeter claims that this attack on tradition and custom opens the door for various professionals to undermine the existing system. These groups have a class interest in doing so. Technology creates the forces that destroy its own innovation as the forces that support such innovation become vested interests. An influence of this analysis comes from Nietzsche who described the class of priests who sought to undermine the power of the knights (the ruling class) by redefining the cultural understanding of virtue. .
Thirdly, capitalism inevitably creates a whole new class of intellectuals as mass affluence increases. Capitalism drives mass education creating a large audience and a market for the resentment intellectuals are selling.
Ultimately Schumpeter might be right about the fate of capitalism, but giving up on it is the only sure path to this destiny. If civilization is a conversation then our demise comes about when the people saying and arguing the right things stop talking.
According to Goldberg, nearly every political argument comes down to Locke versus Rousseau with the left echoing Rousseau and the right embracing Locke. For the left, the rules are reflective of a rigged system of exploitative capitalism, whereas conservatives argue that freedom and merit ultimately lead to economic inequality, and this is not a bad thing. For the conservative, government is for creating the space for upward mobility, not to ease the misery of those stuck in their station.
Goldberg recounts the events of the Glorious Revolution which resulted in Parliament, not God, making William and Mary king and queen. This cut England off from its feudal past and grounded the new democratic society in the tribal story of Englishness. It was in this context that John Locke wrote his Second Treatise.
The key to understanding Locke’s worldview is bound up in his conception of property. Locke understood the state of nature to be unstable since it invites a state of war. There are no common judges to settle disputes, so disputes are settled by force, generating one winner and one loser who is now under “the perfect condition of slavery.” This use of force is illegitimate since the first property right is the ownership of self. Our rights exist prior to government, but we create and limit it in order to protect property or life.
Locke was aware that human ingenuity creates wealth and believed that property was the path to improvement. When a person makes a table from a tree he is creating property. Life, liberty and property were Locke’s inalienable rights. All are equal before God and therefore equal under government.
But it was arguably Locke’s postulation of the “blank slate” that transformed the world more than anything else he wrote. He claimed that humans were like a blank sheet of paper void of the character and ideas that reach humankind via experience. While scientifically false, this idea stood in direct contrast to the medieval justifications for the political status quo and undercut the foundations of royalty and aristocracy.
“John Locke saw the past as a pit humanity must labor to escape from. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, on the other hand, believed it was a shame we built the ladder at all” (131). Whereas Locke recognizes the capacity of man to use reason to create artificial things as the core of human progress, Rousseau saw all artificiality as corrupting. For Rousseau the natural state of humankind was noble and characterized by amour de soi—a type of self-interest primitive man shared with animals where apparently one’s interest never compromised the life of another. This is of course nonsense, for predators, including primitive man, naturally operate in a manner harmful to others. He then contrasted this self-interest with amour-propre, which may translate as “vanity” or “pride.” This type of self-interest describes our cravings for social recognition as special or important, and for Rousseau it was the source of the social problems of modernity.
Rousseau saw the modern world as unnatural and alienating, separating the human soul and in opposition to nature. Since there’s no returning to the state of nature, the solution for this is finding new social meaning governed by a collective consciousness which outweighs the individual consciousness. Each citizen would derive meaning through the group and only through the group. And the state has total authority to shape the souls of men for the greater good.
The stories told by Rousseau and Locke and the stories we tell of them signify the two general trends in Western civilization. The tension between the two can’t be resolved permanently because human nature doesn’t change and Locke’s thinking is an imposition to that nature. We start off as barbarians and must learn and earn nobility.
To Goldberg, the Founding Fathers were wrong about our rights being self-evident. If we can’t demonstrate the existence of the Creator to everyone’s satisfaction, how much more difficult is it to prove that He endowed us with natural rights? To accept this we must make a leap of faith. Yet, the greatest achievement of the founding was the assertion in writing that we have natural rights from God.
Just as the Jews unleashed a monotheistic framework on the world which was universalized by Christianity, the English introduced rights and freedom to their people, ideas that America universalized. Of course the Founders didn’t apply these principles universally at first, but they laid the groundwork for such progress. And judging the past by the standards of today leads to anachronism, and this robs the heroism of everyone in history who has made the world a better place.
The Declaration of Independence was intended as an expression of the American mind. That Americans failed to live up to their high ideals is not an indictment of the ideals, but a testament to the noble path we’ve taken as a nation.
While many think of aristocracy as rulership by nobility, in its original Greek it means “rule of the best.” It was to this natural aristocracy that Jefferson wanted to return, before the notion became infused with hereditary status. The notion that a person has a special status based on things that are not of their making is identitarianism. As such, inherited nobility was an ancient form of identity politics.
In America, as opposed to France, the people rejected the idea of the perfectibility of man, instead opting for a government that factors man’s nature into account and then simply directing it to more productive ends. Many of the Founders were deists, believing that God created the world as a watchmaker produces a watch—creating the machinery, winding it up and then letting it run on its own. Similarly, the Founders created a mechanical system of liberty after which they promptly got out of the way. This contrasts starkly with the French perspective in which the state ought to advance the “wheel of history” and take the people in a particular direction.
Wealth had been decoupled from inherited status or nobility in America. The inventor was a hero in the New World. For the first time there was a government that reflected the interests of the middle class and those who strived to be in it. This attracted immigrants with similar perspectives from all over Europe. Quality of life improved as life expectancy increased dramatically, workweeks became shorter and diets got better. The free market proved to be the great engine in thwarting poverty and the legal system provided parameters for human advancement.
The Founders feared arbitrary power as the enemy of liberty. They believed that the system they created would work only if the public was virtuous. A virtuous people are faithful to the law. Given the human proclivity to form coalitions, who is to say that a group couldn’t obtain enough power to overwhelm the constitutional order? Even a natural aristocracy could, after reaching the top, pull the ladder up behind them.
Aristocracies are natural and all large and complex societies have elites. In fact, John Adams argued that every government is an aristocracy. And aristocracy is a useful monster that needs to be chained by the U.S. Senate. In the presence of freedom there will always be inequality, thus, to fret about political, social or economic inequality is to fret about the nature of freedom itself.
But the new wealth creators in America differed from the old aristocracies in feudal Europe. The old aristocrats built their wealth off the exploitation of the poor, whereas the new magnates made money helping them. An example of this can be found in the efficiency of Cornelius Vanderbilt who saved the consumer $2.75 on a barrel of flour while he was making 14 cents. Take a look around the country and see the libraries, schools, museums and parks that exist due to the generosity of the supposedly “predatory” wealthy.
Goldberg illustrates the difference between the government and the state in political science by claiming that “the state includes all the population and its territory and is permanent, while governments may come and go” (173). Government is like the English garden which requires maintenance, but is essentially left alone, whereas the state is like the directing hand of the French garden, determining its nature. The statist or progressive prefers the French garden.
Many historians determine that the New Deal was the birth of the state in America. For after FDR the government was felt to be a part of everyday life by the public. But it was really during the Progressive Era that the state came into existence.
The explosion of wealth in the U.S. saw millions of Americans leaving their rural, traditional communities for the big cities. This led to feelings of estrangement and exploitation which led to the sentiment that there must be a better way. A new group of philosophes under the banner of progressivism emerged, promoting the idea that a new community under a new civic religion is necessary. They wanted to refound America on new principles, and thus generating a new society and repairing the holes in the American soul.
These progressives shared a couple of presuppositions—that government should be subject to science not politics, and that the economy should be supervised, investigated, and regulated by an administrative state. They were strongly influenced by the “historical school” of German thought, claiming that the state is an expression of the people and had the right and obligation to produce a new general will.
This emphasis on science and particularly Darwinism gave rise to the “social gospel” (a reinterpretation of Christianity) and eugenics which held that the state ought to prune and pluck the “weeds” of society. They held that there should be restrictions on reproduction and highlighted the superiority of man’s selection over nature’s. Under the expertise of science, man would reach his ideal form.
Woodrow Wilson embodied the ideas of the progressive movement separating as much policy making as possible from that of public opinion. He claimed that the “most despotic of governments under the control of wise statesmen is preferable to the freest ruled by demagogues.” He saw the U.S. government, as developed by the Founders, as a machine under the authority of the laws of physics and contrasted that with a picture society as an organic whole, and thus subject to evolution instead. This organic whole cannot stand the conflicting checks and balances anymore than a person whose organs are working against each other. Thus, the “living Constitution” was born.
The progressives’ desire to see extra-legal administrators wielding arbitrary power for the “greater good” led to the creation of the administrative state—disinterested social scientists or administrators insulated from politics, law and voters, and legitimized by their special insight or knowledge. Before the rise of the administrative state, only Congress was responsible for legislation. Afterwards, however, these bureaucrats were driving the legislation process outside the constitutional order, and have thus been dubbed the “fourth branch” of government.
It should also be noted that under Wilson, the first ministry of propaganda was created. This threw thousands in jail for criminal speech and thoughts in its enforcement of loyalty to the state.
This administrative state (or really shadow government) is actually a state within the state or a parallel government, and represents a corruption of the Founder’s project. It is a reactionary throwback to pre-modern forms of state power. Those who support it are trying to return society back to the lawlessness and arbitrary power banned by the Founders, and it is unconstitutional for a number of reasons.
First, administrative power is outside the law. It is not answerable to or derived from constitutional legislative or judicial authority. Second, it is above the law. The administrative state in effect creates two systems of justice: one for the common people and another for the state. Third, it consolidates the powers the Constitution allocates to other branches, into itself.
To make matters worse, most of these administrators are not appointed by elected officials, but by other administrators. Thus, despite modern arguments, the branch of government isn’t even virtually representative of the people. What they represent is the elevation of a new aristocracy that is above the law. They may wall themselves off from the rest of the public, but they can’t separate themselves from human nature, and this opens the door to corruption.
The only justification for the creation of such a permanent bureaucracy is the claim that it is the only way to advance the public interest against private interests. But Goldberg claims that that is utterly false. “The branch of economics called “public choice” has demonstrated at length that in a system in which you have concentrated benefits and dispersed costs, a small number of agents with a lot to gain often, maybe even routinely, overpower the interests of the majority” (197). In democracies you often get special benefits going to certain groups. These groups will passionately defend their special allocation of resources while few groups are as committed at taking them away. These special interests proliferate and the government gets very efficient at serving the needs of these groups while having difficulty addressing more important or novel public problems.
Bureaucrats are subject to the same petty criminality as everyone else, but the real corruption comes in the form of “regulatory capture.” This is a type of governmental failure where a regulatory agency, designed to advance public interests, instead advances the interests of certain groups which dominate the industry it was designed to regulate. Goldberg prefers the term “guild economics” to illustrate his deepest concerns and the modern parallels to medieval society. In medieval economies, rulers granted licenses to special groups. This regulated economic activity and stifled innovation. To the crown, innovation unsettled economic and social order, and was therefore undesirable. Today, the proliferation of occupational licensing makes it harder to enter a profession, thereby reducing employment opportunities, lowering wages and increasing costs for consumers. It keeps millions of low-skilled workers from obtaining employment.
To illustrate some of the lunacy of modern-day licensure, Goldberg points to hair braiding for black women. There is no need for chemicals, heat or dangerous equipment to naturally braid hair, and it is often a skill that is passed down through generations from mother to daughter. Yet thirteen states require a cosmetology license to sell this service—something that takes 2,100 hours of coursework and up to $20,000 in fees.
The increase of the complexity of society is actually a subsidy. For those who have the resources (political, financial, social, genetic, educational, professional, cognitive or luck), jumping the hurdles of a complex society is far easier.
Treating individuals as units of a tribe has been a natural human tendency for most of our history. In the United States however, we are supposed to treat others by the content of their character and to see all as equals. The success of blacks and women at changing the Constitution and popular attitudes partially stems from the fact that they were appealing to our ideals, not rejecting them. They broadened our application of those ideals.
One of the central ideas of the Founding of America is that we can turn Italians, Chinese, Arabs, etc., into Americans—a people who uphold the principles of the Founding and its culture of liberty. This melting pot breaks down as we are told that some groups should receive preferential treatment from the government, that we should judge people by their group affiliation, and that our group identity is immutable.
Intellectuals are redefining American virtues, calling them vices. “Merit” is code for racism, and color-blindness, a facet of meritocracy and universal equality, ignores racism. Feminists use aggregate disparities in the compensation of males and females to prove that discrimination is real. For the left, women and minorities ought to be fully represented in each field in proportion to their numbers in the general population, or any disparity is automatically labeled discrimination.
The reality is that real people made real decisions, and the aggregate results reflect these choices. To expect the results to be exactly the same is to assume a uniformity of talent, interest and drive for entire categories of people. As to whether these choices have grounding in biology or culture is irrelevant and distracting—choices lead to inequality of outcome.
For those on the left, the real aim is to gain more power for themselves and their group. The remedy, they claim, to this racist and sexist system is for the state to intervene, discarding objective standards in favor of arbitrary special treatment. In such a scenario, the state becomes an instrument of divine judgment, ironing out all the cosmic injustices of the world. For them, merit and color-blindness are vices, not virtues. Even reason and argument are tools of oppression.
Like all groups, leftists guard their status jealously. Given that so many professors, diversity consultants, administrators and activist groups make a living from racial and sexual grievances, it’s not surprising that these groups inflate such issues.
Since the agricultural revolution, there has been a priestly class defining the parameters of right thought and action. The new clerisy of self-anointed academics, activists, writers and artists are no different. They insist that some ideas shouldn’t be entertained. And the safe spaces they create are exemplary of their efforts to control the conversation and blacklist dissenting ideas.
What is acceptable terminology is constantly shifting. What has started off as “tolerance” has developed into “celebration.” Yet, these terms are quite different. Whereas “tolerance” and “acceptance” imply disagreement, “celebration” forces a particular state of mind, and this is nothing more than psychological bullying.
The left has embraced racial essentialism in order to justify their policy positions. “Black Studies,” “Hispanic Studies,” and “Women’s Studies” are dedicated to forming an identity, celebrating its distinctness, and cultivating a sense of nationhood. This unique identity, it is argued, enriches institutions and is important enough to neglect objective standards of merit. Elite universities outside California required that Asians score 140 points higher for admittance while blacks needed 310 points fewer. The racial quotas that result end up promoting people beyond their abilities, and this contributes to higher instances of educational failure.
If Judeo-Christian norms from the 1940s through the 1960s were so aggressively racist and sexist, then how did feminism and the civil rights movement succeed? Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t argue against American ideals, but appealed to them for a wider application. The Civil Rights Acts passed almost exclusively by white men and a majority was Republican.
Unfortunately, social justice warriors seek not just the destruction of traditional Western culture, but to create an entirely new one. And as we’ve witnessed, the replacement of established cultural norms with a new abstract system fails as it opens the door to our darkest impulses. Chopping down our existing institutions and cultural norms doesn’t convert people it radicalizes them. Is it any wonder that when you demonize white people for long enough, a segment of that population will react with their own brand of identity politics?
Yet, not all change comes from the left. Change is intrinsic to capitalism in the form of creative destruction. Innovation and efficiency maximization constantly strive against the status quo. We instinctively incline to blaming others for our misfortunes, and this leads to constant appeals to the state to fix the problems and anxieties of capitalist destruction. But who is to say that this creative destruction is not in the best interest of the people? The regulation of the state to suppress innovation and plan the economy leads to restrictions on our liberties. And economic liberty is inseparable from liberty itself.
Romanticism is custom tailored to the culture and language in which it appears. It’s often a rebellion against definitions, distinctions, and classifications. But the term itself has been stretched and twisted, and is among the hardest to define. Goldberg opts to note some of the facets of romanticism. It is a rebellion against reason, or the primacy of emotions. It was a reaction to the rationalism of the eighteenth century that developed after the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. Despite its inherent flaws, Goldberg acknowledges that the romantics were on to something—there is simply more to life than that which can be mathematized.
But romanticism has never left us, precisely because it was a reaction more than an era. And it dominates popular culture today. The primary image of the Enlightenment is that of light casting out the darkness of ignorance. Closer to the mark, the Enlightenment was more of an unbundling—the secular and religious, the personal and the political, and reason and superstition were more or less fused together before the scientific revolution. Our animal brain is programmed not for elucidating truth, but for survival—thus, are fear, anger and loyalty more important in that context than reason? And the Enlightenment didn’t remove these programs from our brains, and they generate a range of emotional and instinctual responses we sometimes mistake for a higher ideal. Enlightenment culture welcomes the romantic reaction and drive to unify the meaning we divided.
Goldberg contends that rock and roll is essentially romanticism. Key themes in rock and roll, country and hip hop include: “defy authority and throw off the chains of ‘the Man,’ true love, damn the consequences, nostalgia for an imagined better past, the superiority of youth, contempt for selling out, alienation, the superiority of authenticity, paganism and pantheism, and, like an umbrella over it all, the supremacy of personal feelings above all else” (242).
The romantic impulses driving rock and roll actually define much of popular culture in general. Goldberg begins addressing this with some explication about monsters. These are frightening, unnatural beings that personify our fears and arise with the recognition of our own vulnerability. Romanics indict science and reason on the grounds of hubris—which in the original Greek sense meant prideful defiance of the gods. The Old World’s reaction of shock to Benjamin Franklin’s experiments with electricity should, therefore, not be surprising. The monsters that arise from such unnatural acts are ubiquitous in horror movies. Godzilla is an example of this, expressing the fears of the Japanese people as we entered the nuclear age.
Additionally, the Byronic hero has become a stock character in popular culture. The primary characteristic of this hero is that he plays by his own rules. Intriguingly, our moral expectations are different for art than they are in the real world. When the lights go out in the movie theater, we find ourselves cheering the protagonist regardless of how immoral his behavior is (and sometimes justifying their behavior on the grounds that they adhere to a code). We suspend disbelief and in doing so we also suspend the conventions and legalisms we adhere to in the outside world. The primitive parts of our brain reset to the tribal morality of “us” and “them.”
The family is the most important mediating institution. It civilizes people, turning natural-born barbarians into decent citizens. Whether or not the traditional family unit is natural or not, what’s important is that it works.
The size differential between the sexes of our ancient ancestors was indicative of their sexual politics. Large males fought each other to become the alpha, or to get the chance to reproduce with the most desirable females. The differential started to shrink however, approximately 1.7 million years ago. The explanation for this decrease is that sexual competition between males diminished due to the transition to the pair bond system (primitive monogamy). The introduction of the pair bond system meant that more males were reproducing which meant greater stability and social peace. It may even be the reason for humankind’s profound success. The problem however, is that this system is not as strongly instinctual as say the fight-or-flight instinct—monogamy is a tendency not an imperative.
Where monogamy is the norm, such societies are generally more economically productive, politically democratic, socially stable, and more accepting of women’s rights. Traditional marriage may not be fully “natural,” but it is “normal” because countless generations of wise people determined it was a best practice for society. But marriage, like capitalism, is sustained by our language concerning it. And the way we talk about marriage changed dramatically since the 1960s.
During the 1970s, about half of all children born to married parents saw that marriage fail, as compared to 11 percent in the 1950s. The government began subsidizing single motherhood under the Great Society. Mothers were paid based on how many children they had, and this funding was cut off for women who got married. Today, approximately 70 percent of black children are born out of wedlock. Yet, trying to pinpoint a single cause for the transformation of attitudes concerning marriage is futile. But the effects on society are profound. The children of failed marriages are two to three times more likely to experience social or psychological pathologies than their peers of functioning marriages. There is currently wide acceptance among scholars that children raised in stable marriages by two biological parents fare better than children of other family forms.
There is higher correlation between marriage and socioeconomic status now than at any time in our past. The affluent in this country are marrying and marriage helps keep them affluent. Controlling for all variables, married men make 44 percent more than single men. “The wage benefit for marriage is roughly equal to, if not greater than, that of going to college” (271). Ron Haskins of the left-leaning Brookings Institution claims that there’s a simple formula for success. For those who finish high school, get a full-time job and wait until 21 for marriage—in that order—only 2 percent remain in poverty, while 75 percent join the middle class.
The demands on parents are not purely financial. They must provide more intangible things like time, emotional commitment, and elevating the needs of the child over their own. Single parents simply don’t have as much time to spend with their children as a couple does.
The problem is that the conversation surrounding marriage has decayed. Conversation, gratitude and remembrance are the cure to this, for as Hannah Arendt observed, every generation we are invaded by barbarians called “children.” The family is the first line of defense against these barbarians and the darker side to human nature.
Since babies today are born the same as babies 50,000 years ago, the conversation they are born into is the only thing preventing them from becoming barbarians. As a cooperative species, it is our ability to communicate concepts that led to our climb up the food chain. All human endeavors are sustained by our talk about them. And the American Revolution elevated a new bourgeois worldview that looked favorably on liberty, commerce, innovation, hard work, and the autonomy of the family and the individual.
The language used by Western elites has become increasingly hostile towards democracy, free speech, and capitalism. This is partially fueled by the widespread belief that democratic, free-market societies develop slower than authoritarian ones. Not only is there something deeply seductive to having a strong man or an expert council running society, but elites also have a class interest in supporting such a system. They often look to other societies for examples, just as intellectuals looked to fascist and communist regimes in Europe in the 1920s and early 1930s.
While it is true that most of the countries with extraordinary economic growth over the past fifty years have been autocratic, the proportion of these autocracies that is successful is abysmal. The necessary ingredient to successful autocracies has been the introduction of market mechanisms. Yet, the nature of autocracy to substitute imposition for persuasion is still highly attractive to elites.
And then there is Donald Trump. In some important respects he is quite different from far-right and neo-fascist demagogues, but rather similar in other respects. He is not an intellectual, which is not to say that he is unintelligent. He is not a good representative of nationalism or any other ideology, and clearly knows little about American political history. His catchphrases include amoral values such as “winning” and “strength.” His ignorance and vulgarity appealed to many voters as a signal that he was not part of the establishment, and therefore blameless for the status quo. He is also significantly romantic, putting his faith not in God, the Constitution, or abstract principles, but in his own instincts. And these instincts drive most of his decisions. He is reminiscent of pre-modern man, obsessed with being the alpha. Donald Trump is, perhaps, the most successful populist president in American history.
The driving force behind populism is resentment. The people feel like they are being held down or exploited by the establishment or elites, and in extreme cases, conspirators. Naturally, gratitude for the status quo declines and the sense that things were better in the past increases. Besides deriving sustenance from and stirring up resentment, populism has no limiting principle. “Populism is a barbaric, childish yawp coming out of democratic man” (296).
The Constitutional order combined with the patriotic commitments of the people who work for Trump, is enough to contain his will to power. What is more illuminating is that we’ve entered a time in which populist appeals work. And dismayingly, populism on the right and the left is in high demand today.
The ascension of Trump was symptomatic of long-established trends. The division of labor that followed the agricultural revolution generated institutions. These institutions of civil society operate differently than the state or the market economy. They work on the economy of love, community, charity and reciprocity. And when the government gets involved and starts to assume the roles of civil society, it becomes toxic.
The government may be capable of many good and important functions, but it can’t love you. None of the psychological factors involved with family generosity are included with a government check. And the state replaces the notion of welfare as charity with that of entitlement. The mentality that follows assumes the government ought to provide for all the wants and needs of the general population. Then the poor become less motivated to help themselves and the affluent less motivated to help the poor. What results is a lack of “earned success,” and thus, a reduction of the satisfaction that comes from hard work and achievement. It is this earned success, the conviction that your labor is valued and meaningful, that produces lasting happiness. The American system is designed to provide autonomy in the pursuit of earned success; and the more institutions there are, the more options that are available in that pursuit of happiness. And while the market may make us feel like cogs in a machine, it also gives us the right to exit any system we choose. This freedom to exit doesn’t exist in statist systems.
By outsourcing our compassion for other humans to the government, we liberate ourselves from the burdens of others, and free ourselves to think only about the self. We see this reflected in reality as the conservatives, who claim the government shouldn’t be involved in solving income inequality, gave four times as much money to charity than liberals.
The vision of the state as a family or a parent is still very appealing because we have such a strong drive to be part of a family, and government is the thing we all belong to. And while the market system will destroy jobs with automation, leaving many feeling left out, “we should not lose sight of the fact that the spread of markets around the world has led to the largest and quickest decline in poverty in all of human history” (309). The failure is in civil society, for when it is healthy, most people don’t look to Washington to solve all their problems.
The rise of populism in the U.S. and Europe is more attributable to “cultural backlash” than economic dislocation. In a 2012 study, the researchers found that opposition to immigration had more to do with the effects on “the composition of the local population” that newcomers would have. In a massive survey, Harvard sociologist Robert D. Putnam “found that there was an undeniable correlation between increased diversity and breakdowns in the community” (319). He found, among many things, that people living in more diverse communities distrust their neighbors more, withdrawal from friends, expect the worst in others, volunteer and donate less. The simple reality is that people, who have language, customs, faith, institutions and history in common, are more likely to fix their differences and problems without the aid of government. And the trust that forms with more homogenous populations is necessary for democracy and economic growth. Thus, there is a need for immigrants and native-born citizens to assimilate. Unfortunately, today there is a major push encouraging immigrants to retain their minority identities.
Mass immigration corrodes our mediating institutions and drives migration to online “virtual communities,” or virtual echo chambers. Finding support online encourages people to express views in public they normally wouldn’t. Our current political climate is drenched in tribalist thinking. Since the 1960s our political talk intensified as our parties became more ideological and tribal. Politics become more zero-sum as the only goal is victory over the ideological “other.” Persuasion dissipates as victory and humiliation are elevated—and all of this is natural.
Goldberg believes that the rise of populism and tribalism on the right resulted from the failure of the Tea Parties. These included a passionate commitment to the principles of the Founding, and demanding that government operate within the parameters laid out in the Constitution. But they were demonized in the media and Hollywood as racist yokels. Facing a constant barrage from the media, where we’re told that fighting for the Constitution or universal privileges is a “white thing,” a certain segment of the population will eventually agree. This drives the white identity politics on the right. Labeling people as racist for simple disagreement and skepticism produces this natural backlash.
Today, when one party is in power, it provides the meaning that one group craves while producing estrangement and resentment in others. “The only solution is to break the cycle by making the state less important and letting the dying reefs of civil society grow back to health” (330).
Jonah Goldberg confesses that he attempted to keep God out of his book, but as a sociological entity, God can’t be removed. The ancients created gods to reflect their feelings and to serve their own purposes. The ancient Hebrews reversed this, demanding that people work for God. They recognized the moral sanctity of every individual Jew—male and female. Then Christianity universalized this by applying moral sanctity to all. Through the concept of the Golden Rule grew the concept of the individual. The proposition that all humans are equal was a ticking time bomb to aristocracy. Christianity also created the idea of the secular—the City of God and the City of Man. The Protestant Reformation dissolved the monopoly of the Catholic Church, which led to an explosion of institutions and new habits, including a revolutionary respect for innovation. The advancement of the West resulted from a series of creative tensions—balancing individual rights and the powers of the state. But perhaps the most civilizing element to society is idea that God is watching. This is a check on the temptation to follow one’s passions. The notion of good character comes to us from countless generations of people figuring out what they should do when only God is watching. And this creates tension between our base instincts and the will of God. “This tension created space for reason to become a crucial moral tool in our lives” (333). The absence of God is felt intensely as it permits all manner of ideas to take his place.
It was a new bourgeois worldview that built the Miracle. Everyone has the right to pursue happiness and this implies work. And we can’t deny the work aspect to this equation, for lasting happiness is bound up with earned success.
We have become a society of idiots in the original Greek sense of the word. To the ancient Greek, the idiot was a private individual ignorant of the knowledge and lacking the skills that underlie civilization. They are step removed from the barbarian and don’t understand the meaning to the word “civility.” Instead of receiving the education of the liberal arts—which is designed to dispel such idiocy—today’s leaders have created an army of ingratitude. The idiots that have been created are ignorant of their own civilization and too indifferent to defending the soapboxes they stand on.
When we stop looking to God for meaning, it is inevitable that we will find such fulfillment in tribes and crowds. For where God disappears, people seek transcendence through drugs, recreational sex and the ecstasy of crowds.
What can be created with ideas can be destroyed by ideas. The conservative movement is no different, and that is why we need dogma. We must re-embrace our core ideas—the ideas that made the Miracle possible. We must have a tribal attachment to them and a dogmatic commitment.
We are at the summit of human history where the terms “right” and “left” have no meaning, for any direction we turn takes us back down the mountain. More than any other ingredient, gratitude is the indispensible quality necessary for civilizational success. And success is never permanent, for we must constantly work for its upkeep, and equip the next generation to carry on the fight against nature. The only way the Constitution works is if people of good character resist the entropy of human nature. Decline for us is a choice. “Principles, like gods, die when no one believes in them anymore” (351).