Western Civilisation

Modernity’s Miracle II: Practical and Romantic Nations

The way contemporary political debate quickly descends into outrage and foot-stamping reminds us of the limits of reason. You can argue all you wish about “equality”, yet equality exists only in the company of inequality just as freedom does in the company of necessity

When you least expect it, politics pivots. A decade ago a multinational coalition had deposed Saddam Hussein, the European Union had recently acquired ten new members, and 15 per cent of the Mexican workforce was working illegally in the United States.[1] The number of active free-trade agreements between countries across the world had grown four-fold between 1990 and 2000 and two-fold between 2000 and 2008.[2] Then came the Global Financial Crisis. At first invisibly, then visibly, a wave of “tribalism, populism, nationalism and identity politics” washed over the West. The growth of free-trade signings levelled out at around 1.6-fold. The world did not upend itself. Yet its tone changed.

The central idea of Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West is that populism, nationalism and identity politics arise from tribalism. This is his term for group belonging—the archaic need of human beings to shelter together in a group, and draw material and emotional sustenance from the group. Goldberg is right. A certain kind of archaism has kept reproducing itself over millennia in new forms. Terms like “new feudalism” or “neo-patrimonialism” have been used to describe some of its versions in the twentieth century. The phenomenon goes back to the origin of the state when leaders of clans and tribes emerged to monopolise and distribute society’s surplus. That surplus wasn’t much. Until recently, most people in most societies lived on the edge of famine and destitution.[3] Originally leaders were capable hunters who could provide food for the less able. Gradually the state developed around that function. Chiefs gifted food to the hungry and the sick. As societies settled in one place, the chiefs gradually assumed the ownership of land and stock, the power to exact tribute and taxes, the title of kings or lords, a staff to help them, and a clerisy to anoint them.

Modernity’s Miracle, Part I

Mostly that’s the way it was for millennia. Then something extraordinary happened. This is what Goldberg calls the miracle. The miracle had two parts. First, violent deaths per capita declined dramatically. Second, income and wealth per capita rose spectacularly. The two were related. It looked for a time—well into the nineteenth century—that political patrimony would end as a result of the rapid growth of economic and social prosperity. But then appeared the “isms”—beginning with romanticism and socialism. The old clerisy transformed itself into a new secular intelligentsia. Its mission was to make patrimony great again by dressing it up in modern legal-rational clothing.

Modern prosperity was enabled by a shift in social focus from distribution to production. Ironically though, when this happened, the engines of modern prosperity—the mix of global free trade, recurring industrial revolutions and big cities—created a massive pool of wealth for the state to redistribute. As prosperity grew, hunger, destitution and illness declined. Yet paradoxically stories and myths of want and privation multiplied. The arguments made by the intelligentsia were repetitive. Capitalism impoverished rather than enriched. The wealthier a society at all levels, the poorer it was. The demons of misery and hardship multiplied amongst plenty. The force for redemption was the state. It would save humanity from its own wicked prosperity. Production would be nationalised, corporatised, communalised, planned, taxed, regulated and penalised until some large portion of the fruits of production was allocated and distributed by the state and its staff. These state employees saw great opportunities to benefit personally from this process, as did the ever-swelling number of employees of state-funded schools, universities and public broadcasters.

Ancient or modern, the politics of patrimony has two motive forces. The first is generosity. One of the oldest impulses of a population is to ask: What can the state give us? Food, money, employment? The second motive is protection against competition. This is distinct from protection against enemies. The modern miracle industrialises military protection while emancipating industry from economic protection. As Goldberg observes, for centuries industries and professions were organised as guilds, which suppressed competition and throttled innovation. Guilds have long gone, but the modern state has found numerous ways of stifling competition. Both archaic liberality and sheltered economics remain very much alive in a world that otherwise brims with productive activity.

Modern patrimony is remarkably influential. As democracies replaced monarchies, the politics of patrimony adapted. Political parties approach elections as if their manifestos are menus for giant feasts. Campaigning politicians promise all kinds of “free” stuff. Once these are consumed, voters quickly forget them, and at the next election they come back hungry for more. In between elections, business and unions lobby the state for protection from competition. They press for occupational licensing, regulations that give businesses an edge over their competitors, tariffs that protect uncompetitive industries, and so on. These are protections not against enemies but against the modern productive world. Archaic priests promised to end droughts with human sacrifices. Today the state promises to end stressful social climates with promises of economic protection. Neither works. Peace and prosperity are real things. Government can promote them with prudent budgeting and the sensible provision of military and police forces. What the modern state cannot provide is a steady-state economy—at least not without destroying prosperity and eventually peace.

Modern economies are dynamic. Yet in their own way they are also predictable. They cycle up and down. Firms grow then shrink. Demand for a particular university discipline increases then declines. Old pursuits shrivel and new ones rise. Nothing disappears completely but no towering ascendancy lasts forever. Every dog has its day. But it is only a day. Some people think of this as disruption, yet it’s really a kind of stability. It’s like the sun. It rises, falls and rises. It is a kind of eternal return. However, as Goldberg observes, a good chunk of people in the modern world do not like this rhythm. They expect the state to end the eternal return. They want economic fixity, not cyclical constancy.

In the slice of modernity that is really successful, there are many constants. It’s a technological and industrial world. People live largely in cities. It’s a civilisation rather than a culture (much to the annoyance of the modern clerisy). Markets are key to social co-operation and inventive competition. And a sizeable portion of those who benefit from successful modernity dislike it intensely. A common criticism is that the modern miracle rests on contracts, not community. It doesn’t provide people with a sense of belonging as the tribe, kin group, guild, social class or village supposedly once did.

The 2010s saw a marked revival of the idea that economic dynamism negates emotional belonging. But, as Goldberg argues, this is untrue. Rather, the modern miracle offers several alternative ways of belonging. First, there is love and friendship. Goldberg rightly observes that the household in the form of the nuclear family is the bedrock of the most successful modern societies. Along with friends and friendly acquaintances, it provides the empathy and warmth that sustain human beings. Love balances and replenishes the energies required for public and social life.

Goldberg also suggests that modern voluntary associations provide something similar. To an extent this is true, but I would also point out the degree to which voluntary associations in the past century have become colonised by bureaucratic management and professionalised beyond recognition.[4] The decline of the truly amateur sports club is a good example of this. While the nuclear family faces pressures resulting in the rise of the single-headed household and the spread of lonerism, it still remains very effective at elevating people out of poverty and providing them with emotional stability and deep, durable, enriching affection.

In the modern matrix, two other loves are important. One is the love of place. Belonging often arises out of the sense of living alongside others in an agreeable place. This may be a town or city that is attractive or convivial, or a landscape that’s been worked on by hands and machines over time into a picturesque or dramatic beauty. Sometimes places are iconic, sometimes just idiomatic. Either way, they stimulate affection and loyalty. More complicated is the third kind of love that engenders belonging. This is the love of nation. It is the most contradictory modern way of belonging. In some cases the modern nation is a reinvention of the ancient tribe. In other cases, it’s the obverse of that. In short, there is the romantic nation and the practical nation.

Every nation has its stories. The romantic nation has stories of origin. A sacred aboriginal origin makes the nation pure, good and great. Revered origins can be defined in terms of history, race, ethnicity, language or culture. A sacrosanct origin in time might be something as recent as the Jacobin revolution or as distant in the past as the resistance of Germanic tribes to ancient Rome and their refusal to be swayed by the evident prosperity of neighbouring Roman provinces.[5] As Goldberg puts it, it is the authentic time in an imagined past when a people overcame the national humiliation meted out by a powerful foe.

The practical nation also has stories, traditions, mythologies and memories. But this history is the work of pattern, the propensity of nature to unite opposites in an elegant equilibrium. The practical nation looks not to origin but to grace. It hankers after a balance of light and dark—an equipoise of contending forces. Practical nations resist domineering, enthusiastic and overreaching power. This is the crucible in which a national character is shaped. Courage, calm, persistence, sacrifice and duty are mobilised against despotic behaviour of all kinds. In the modern world of nations, character stories alternate with origin stories. Character is an umbrella term for grit, determination, skill and courage dedicated to goodness, principle, happiness and equilibrium. As Winston Churchill put it, the bond that unites us is to never surrender ourselves to servitude and shame, whatever the cost and agony may be.

The practical nation offers a bond between people who don’t know each other—just as the family is the bond between people who do know each other. Practical nations typically develop two kinds of ties that cement strangers together. The first is common space. Occupying a common place for centuries creates a powerful sense of belonging.[6] The second is fidelity in time. The stories that practical nations tell are often about character—about how to persist with things in time, how not to wobble and crumble in the face of pressure and threats. Successful societies are based on trust. As Goldberg observes, that means trusting strangers—not something we do automatically. Having something in common—language, culture, appearance, symbols or religion—is the way that people who don’t know each other come to have confidence in each other. Something familiar draws us to what is unfamiliar. Being reliable and looking after the common world are among the most powerful and practical demonstrations of trustworthiness.

The practical nation is the counterpart of the modern sovereign state. Through acts of popular sovereignty, the practical nation establishes who and how many can settle within its borders, and the laws under which its markets, industries and cities operate within these boundaries. It signifies firm boundaries, clear sovereignty (no supra-national entity issuing half of the country’s laws), an efficient vehicle for competition and co-operation with other nations, the power of making treaties with other nations, trading freely with them, and combining with them in defence alliances.

Underpinning this practicality is a metaphysics. The polished equilibrium of a practical nation is the work of pattern contrasts upheld by determined characters. Contending powers are checked and balanced. Contrary qualities are reconciled, often paradoxically. Destiny and freedom, comedy and tragedy, contingency and necessity fuse together in public policy and the character of a people.

 

Economic romanticism

The United States is a practical nation, yet at times it is drawn to images of the romantic nation. This tendency began early in its history, first in the guise of isolationism. Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson talked about being independent of European diplomacy and alliances yet engaging commercially with the world. Alexander Hamilton argued for high tariffs on imported manufactured goods. Washington, Jefferson (reluctantly), Jackson, Lincoln, McKinley, Hoover and Roosevelt were protectionists.[7] Conversely, arguments for a romantic race-based nation came from the cotton-producing American South that, reliant on the world market, was free-trading.

Socialism never took root in the United States. But a liberalised version of Johann Fichte’s micro-managed “closed commercial” economy did. As Goldberg observes, at the end of the nineteenth century an influential wave of German-educated American academics imported the ideas of planning and expertise from the Wilhelmine empire. Under Bismarck, Germany’s “second Reich” developed as a laboratory of big government, regulation and state intervention in the economy. Already by the 1880s German public spending constituted a much larger portion of GDP than in any other comparable state. “Big chief” economics was reinventing itself in terms of Continental statism.

Goldberg’s academic influx was not unprecedented. When the romantic revolutions of 1848 failed in Central Europe, many “forty-eighters” migrated to America. There, their attention turned from revolution to progressive-style reform. Many were professionals. Politically they were knowledge-class idealists, the nineteenth-century precursor of the twentieth-century managerial class. Many, including former communists, joined Lincoln’s Republican Party and fought in the Civil War.

Bismarck and more generally the Continental model influenced America not just in the most obvious of ways—the development of progressive big government. There were more subtle ways as well. Take for example the idea of the nation. Late in the nineteenth century Bismarck’s Germany not only realised Fichte’s early nineteenth-century romantic idea of a tightly-managed economy but also his dream of uniting all German-speakers in a pan-national entity. Ideas like pan-nationalism have a curious way of mutating. In new settings they acquire new meanings. Look at how in recent decades American progressives have come up with their own pan-nationalism. This is not the pan-nationalism of a language group, as Fichte imagined. Rather it’s the pan-nationalism of the poor and immiserated.

On the surface of things, the fierce contemporary debate about immigration to the US looks like a pretty simple debate between nationalists and internationalists. The latter argue for a kind of romantic infinity that would allow anyone who so wished to enter the United States, legally or illegally. This lobby is matched by a second lobby that agitates to retain and expand America’s family reunion immigration scheme. Family reunion is based on a model of pre-modern extended kinship. Driving both lobbies is an image of “big chief” economics—a pan-national redistributive pot for all those suffering in the world. Legal migration based on extended kinship draws extended family groups from poor countries into the American welfare state. Likewise benefits provided by US states to illegal migrants from Mexico and Central America subsidises remittance payments to their families back in their states of origin. This is yet another (in this case circumlocutious and off-the-books) internationalisation of America’s redistributive state.

The modern miracle is dynamic. But it is not romantic. It emerged from city-states and later adapted itself to nation-states. Both are finite territories defined by finite laws. A nation-state that fails to apply its own border laws destroys itself. A practical nation has lucid affirmative borders. It is neither a shapeless mess nor is it hermetically sealed off from the outside. Romanticism in contrast wavers between hermetic closure and complete boundlessness.[8]

Fichte, Goldberg notes, was a key figure in imagining the nation as a set of shutters. The romantic intellectual tradition, though, was equally responsible for the idea of a borderless world. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, another key figure in Goldberg’s account of romanticism, imagined a federation of states in which constituent nations were subordinated to a transnational legislature. Political romantics, who dream of a world without limits, tend to back this kind of transnationalism. Then when it fails to emerge they simply try and suspend the operation of national boundaries. This, understandably, provokes a counter-romanticism that hopes to isolate the nation from the rest of the world. These two romanticisms feed off each other, and eventually devour each other.

In Rousseau’s romanticism, modern society corrupts. It is the enemy of the simple life of the natural man who does everything for himself and creates everything for himself. A good society has no division of labour, machinery, functional specialisation or industrialisation of agriculture. The American version of this was Thomas Jefferson’s insistence on the virtuous uncorrupted nature of the self-sufficient American farmer.

Even as commercial farming grew, and the global division of labour replaced the frontier farmer, this romantic image persisted. The tension between the two exploded in the agrarian populism of the 1890s, as populists protested against gold, money interests and Wall Street with overtones of anti-Semitism mixed with anguished laments against the modern miracle’s inexorable dynamics of economic cycles and sector growth-and-decline. A century later the image of romantic virtue was transferred to the industrial blue-collar manufacturing worker, a similarly disappearing cohort set upon by an impersonal global division of labour and relentless industrial automation. Many of their number can be found in small-town exurban and rural America where alternative employment is limited, especially jobs tinged with redemptive romantic overtones.

Then there is the curious case of business romanticism. It too trades on Rousseau’s sentimental image of simple unskilled labour. Many American businesses have tried for decades to avoid the hard work of industrial automation by illegally recruiting the kind of simple labour lacking specialised skills that Rousseau eulogised. Chamber of Commerce lobbies pressure the United States to acquiesce in illegal entry in order to secure low-wage unskilled labour from Mexico and Central America. The soul of simple labour is evoked to justify this. As do those who extol domestic simple labour struggling to compete with illegal foreign labour.

In America the romantic Left and the romantic Right sanctify unskilled labour. It has sacral overtones. Those who are more sceptical are branded “neoliberals” or “globalists”. This is a political argument. But it has deep metaphysical resonances as well. It touches on some profound questions of freedom and necessity.

In Suicide of the West, Goldberg frames America’s future as a choice—to be or not to be. Arguably, though, choice is part of the problem. Good societies are free of nagging and petty rules. They prefer principles to procedures. They offer an enveloping sense of freedom. However, the flip-side of freedom is necessity. Goldberg has great respect for the implacability of nature. Human beings in response to that obduracy create a second nature—the “artifice” of civilisation—that allows them to adapt to nature. Nature-worshipping romantic primitivism eats away at the great human artifice. Civilisation expands human freedom but it also constrains it. For choices that fail to take account of necessity, not least tragic necessity, end up as choices in vain. Fruitful liberty is ordered liberty.

Individuals in modern society make billions of choices every day. Yet out of these arise patterns of economic necessity. This is key to understanding why so many people dislike the modern miracle. The old Calvinist idea that God “freely and unchangeably ordained whatsoever comes to pass” sounds odd to contemporary ears. In contrast the many Lutheran, Arminian and Wesleyan currents in American life—these days thoroughly secularised—stress free will, not necessity. Surely we can choose what comes to pass? Not really. Take the example of economic growth. Most people want their economy to grow. But that rests on increasing productivity, which rests on replacing simple labour with capital and skills. In one sense that is a matter of choice. We can choose not to do it. But if we do that, we won’t grow the economy.

Successful societies move from low-skill to high-skill work. They automate. Immigration cannot be unlimited because elevated skills by their nature are limited. In the context of the modern miracle, immigration works when it focuses on the experience and skills of incomers and their attitudes to property, patrimony and life among strangers. As Goldberg notes, it takes time for incomers and an existing population to adapt to each other. Markets, industries and cities work best when levels of trust are high. But building trust is a gradual process. If a society tries to take in massive numbers of newcomers, as Angela Merkel did in Germany in 2015, trust is crushed.

Goldberg considers the impact of low-skill incomers on the wages of existing low-skill workers. He notes the divergent views on this. Some evidence suggests it has no impact; other evidence suggests it reduces wages to a modest extent. However, just as important, I’d argue, is that the modern miracle tends over time to reduce low-skill labour. Underlying this is a paradox. Put simply, affluent high-performing economies can’t afford much low-skill labour. These societies are all committed to a good basic common standard of living. Over time this basic standard rises. That’s the nature of prosperity. The more prosperous, the higher is the basic standard of living. But who provides that? The employee’s wage can’t because the labour is low-skilled. So the state fills the gap. It redistributes income via taxation to the low-skilled. But the higher the standard of living of a country, the less the state can do this because the costs of doing it rise.

As a matter of practical economics, at a certain point high-performing economies have to limit the number of low-skilled workers. Yet it is remarkable in America how much the national self-image still conjures up the soul of simple labour. A thread runs from Jefferson’s self-sufficient virtuous farmer through Emerson into American populism and progressivism. Jefferson talked of cities being sores on the body politic. A deep anxiety about the accelerating industrialisation of rural America in the late nineteenth century triggered a resurrection of old tribe-like fears of pollution and archaic desires for purity. We see the ancient instinct to purify morph into the progressive desire for a “clean and green” society. Despite its name, progressivism, as Goldberg suggests, is deeply primeval.

At the turn of the twentieth century the reaction to the long-term decline of rural life and the resulting internal migration to cities produced both American progressivism and populism. They were two sides of one coin. Progressives sought clean water, clean air and clean food. Outwardly this was hardly radical. Anxieties about pollution are ancient. Environmental and food laws go back to the Romans at least. Progressives, however, wanted to replace general laws with administrative regulation. Populists on the other hand wanted to increase tariffs on farm produce, reduce them on farm equipment, cap rail-freight rates, replace the gold standard and encourage currency inflation to shrink bank debts. Feelings of persecution by outside forces and conspiracy theories were not uncommon.

The same dialectic of progressivism and populism repeated itself in the 2010s. The administrative state expanded under Obama, notably the Environmental Protection Agency. Trump rolled this back, turning instead to protectionism. Labour-intensive manufacturing today is concentrated in small-town rural and exurban America. Its wedge voters delivered Donald Trump the Presidency. The tacit contract with these voters was to pursue a trade “war” with nations that sell more goods to the United States than they buy from it—countries with whom the US has a trade “deficit”.

The idea of a trade “deficit” comes from the seventeenth-century mercantilist theory of political economy. It originally meant that a state should aim for a positive trade balance in finished goods so it could maximise its financial reserves (of gold and silver) in order to conduct wars. It could achieve this by imposing tariffs (taxes) on finished goods, outlawing certain goods, or placing restrictive rules on imports. When nineteenth-century romanticism replaced mercantilism, “state aid to weak industries” became the objective of state policy. The problem is that tariffs don’t overcome weakness, they entrench it.

Japan in the 1970s and 1980s is a case in point. It protected its industries from competition. America protested that Japan had made great inroads into the US auto and consumer electronics markets while using tariff and non-tariff barriers “unfairly” to keep American goods out of the Japanese market. The irony in the end was that Japan’s unfree trade reduced its competitive spur to innovation. The country fell asleep for two decades. Its industries missed the information technology wave. Its growth stagnated. China today faces a similar conundrum. It insulates its auto industry with high tariffs. Since the early 1980s it has restricted car imports, raised tariffs on automobiles and driven foreign manufacturers into joint ventures, forcing technology transfers to Chinese industry. That would appear to advantage China “unfairly”. Yet after forty years China has not produced its own international car brand. South Korea with lower tariffs managed that in twenty years with Hyundai.[9]

At the root of this is the nature of the modern miracle. The conventional habit is to think of trade just in terms of markets. But as Goldberg reiterates on several occasions, his model for thinking about the miracle is not just Hayek but also Schumpeter. Schumpeter thought technology innovation was as important as market efficiency. Romantics in contrast loathe both markets and machines. Take the case of America’s recently acquired trade-war “foes”. Many of these countries have a lower weighted mean tariff level than the US does. Even China’s tariff level, while it is higher, is not spectacularly high. Yet somehow the international marketplace is “unfair”.[10] As for machines, romantics once wanted to smash them. Today they still praise artisanship. But they also bitterly complain when machines are copied.

In all things romanticism is obsessed with originality. It sacralises origins. Material civilisation, however, works through dissemination. It grows when technology is adopted. The commercial licensing of creativity is fine to a point. Beyond that it is counter-productive. America built its first-class publishing industry in the nineteenth century on the back of piracy—New York publishers would stand on the docks waiting for the latest best-sellers to arrive from Europe. Creation and copying are two sides of one coin. What makes modern capitalism “miraculous” is the ability to act on such ironies.

 

God, paradox and prosperity

Hiding from competition may prove an advantage in the short term. In the long run it is a disadvantage. That is one of the many contrary maxims of the modern miracle. All of those maxims, in one way or another, are paradoxes. Innovation destroys yet also creates. Supply generates its own demand. Abundant water is more useful to us yet scarce diamonds command a higher price in the marketplace. As the price of food rises, demand remains high; as levels of income rise, demand for food declines. That’s how the modern miracle works.

Some conservatives think in these kinds of ironic terms. They are natural sceptics. Others, though, are literalists. This split makes it difficult to reduce conservative views to a neat ideology. As Goldberg observes, conservative thought is not a coherent “ism”.[11] A socialist in France or Vermont believes the same thing but not a conservative.[12] A conservative in America, he argues, is different from one in Continental Europe. The first is drawn to the Enlightenment, the other to the counter-Enlightenment. What American conservatives want to conserve, Goldberg argues, is “a radical classical liberal revolution”.[13] I think that overstates the case. Liberal-conservative ideas are common in the United States, but there are also libertarian, neo-conservative, Burkean, and romantic conservatives.

The various American conservative currents agree on one thing: limited government. They also disagree about two things. First, international relations: libertarians, Burkeans and romantics dream of perpetual peace. Classic-liberal conservatives and neo-conservatives in contrast are realists about war and its proxies. Second: what is limited government? Classic-liberal conservatives prefer a small state focused on law, defence and infrastructure. Libertarian conservatives want the market to replace the state wherever possible. Neo-conservatives prioritise defence over domestic spending. Libertarians prioritise peace. Burkeans want to substitute state functions with intermediate institutions. The classic-liberal conservatives and the neo-conservatives tend to look to self-organising order while the romantic conservatives hope to anchor the state in a mystical amalgam of language, history, ancestry, culture and nation.[14]

Burkean conservatives are critical of the modern bureaucratic state and military industrialism. So are libertarian conservatives. Neo-conservatives point to the failure of state social engineering but are military realists. Burkeans admire community, voluntary association and family. They worry about the loss of belonging in the modern world. Libertarian conservatives tend to regard markets as a sufficient surrogate for community. Romantic conservatives advocate a mix of non-interventionist foreign policy, trade regulation, culture-preserving immigration restriction, local rule and minimum bureaucracy. Unsettled by Enlightenment reason and abstract principle, romantics prefer pristine origins and historical roots. Burkeans favour cultural inheritances and tacit habits. Anti-liberal and classic-liberal conservatives have something in common. They all dislike the administrative state. But the reason they do in each case differs. While limited government is a common principle, in practice divergent interpretations over-determine it.

Suicide of the West in part is an anguished response to the recent upsurge of romantic conservatives. Goldberg is a classic-liberal conservative who occasionally nods in the direction of the Burkeans. The Lockean side of his outlook is straightforward: it entails economic innovation, political liberty, natural rights and free trade. But what about the conservative side? Goldberg defines it this way: “conservatives, broadly speaking, are comfortable with contradiction”.[15] This might not be true of all conservatives. But it is true of conservatives who are realists. Goldberg explains:

one of things I mean by this is that … deep in the realism of conservatism is a metaphysical, theological, economic, practical bedrock faith—principle—that we understand that life is about trade-offs. We understand that to have one good thing may come at the expense of another good thing.

He argues that this is the essence of economics. Conservatives do not choose “between the good and the perfect”.

[Conservatives] understand—whether it is from a Christian perspective or a Jewish perspective or just a practical Tom Sowell-like economic perspective—that there is no perfection in this world. Everything is about trade-offs, everything is about compromise; and that’s true in our lives. You have a finite amount of time in this world. We have a finite amount of things that we can do with our time.

A trade-off is different from a transaction. In particular it is different from the kind of Nietzschean-style social pact that distinguishes postmodern politics. Take the case of contemporary American evangelical politics. Of all American religious groups, socially-conservative evangelicals are on the lowest income step. They are the most likely to be left-behind. This overlaps with the core Trump constituency. Social conservatives traditionally criticise marital infidelity. Yet what happens if an adulterous President nominates an avalanche of conservative judges prospectively upsetting decades of US court social engineering? A Nietzschean bargain presents itself: if you appoint judges to reverse the post-1970s romantic reversal of moral values, we will reverse our critical judgment of romantic sexual adventurism. At first glance this seems like a beneficial transaction. But is it?

Degrees of toleration of bad personal morals are fine. “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” Politics is not a place for moralising. On the other hand, fidelity is the rock-bottom of the modern miracle. Without the Roman fides, faithfulness, it all falls apart. Firmness of character is the crucible of the hardy nation. Abide-with-me underpins all good personal and commercial relations.[16] Somewhere there is a line not to cross. Serial affairs with porn stars and hush-money could well be that line. The sociologist Max Weber suggested that the great modern political problem was the polytheism of values—that is, how you achieve trade-offs between them.[17] You can upend them, as Nietzsche recommended. But if we do that in the case of something as fundamental as fidelity, we have to ask ourselves, “What profits a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul?”

Trade-offs between values are artfully conceived. Divorce is a classic instance. It permits an elegant compromise between personal freedom and fidelity. It is conceived so as to preserve both. This is the view of a realist, not a romantic. The realist says: you want tax cuts, fine; but you need to trim your spending also. You wish to increase pensions? Okay, but not until you reduce the mountainous national debt. That is, there is no day without night just as there is no creation without copying. Unlike the romantic, a realist looks on politics and society as a balancing of opposites. An example Goldberg uses—censorship—illustrates the point. People on both sides of politics routinely say they are “against” censorship but then mentally reserve the right to “regulate” speech they don’t like (because it is hateful, offensive, vulgar or inflammatory). The realist says: every rule has its exception just as every exception is accompanied by a rule. Everything we think is valuable in some degree is mitigated by a competing value. We have to balance these and find the right proportion between what we think is the larger and smaller consideration. We mostly support free speech but understand that, at the margins, we will limit it to some modest degree or channel certain of its uses into more appropriate times and places.

This worldview—the world as a set of trade-offs, checks and balances—is not an offspring of John Locke or the Enlightenment. Tellingly, James Burnham defined his conservative realist approach to politics as Machiavellian.[18] Machiavelli framed politics not as an artefact of progress but as a Renaissance-style balance of opposites.[19] This is different from the outlook of the Enlightenment. As Goldberg acknowledges, Enlightenment thought is rationalistic. However, reason cannot explain a miracle. Reason is only satisfying when we agree on basic assumptions. Left to support itself, argument is unfulfilling. Arguing with those who hold fundamentally different assumptions is pointless. It leads to shouting, rage and affront. Untethered reason ends in unreason. It is neither charming nor enchanting.

This is why the modern miracle precedes both Locke and the Enlightenment. It is a product of the Renaissance, which in turn has a long prehistory.[20] In any event, the modern miracle is not just classical-liberal in nature but conservative as well in the sense of what Goldberg calls the “trade-off” way of thinking about politics, society and nature. The back-story to this was well-known to eighteenth-century Americans. Both the American political elite and the general population were well-read—unlike today. As Goldberg concedes, Locke was just one of a vast array of authorities and works consulted by the American colonists as they debated their future. The histories and philosophies of the English constitution, the Dutch republic, the Genevan, Florentine and Venetian city-states, the Anglo-Saxon Gothic commonwealth, and much else was picked over with an eye to creating a workable modern commercial republic.

The metaphysical context of this is important. The dates of the American Founding are revealing. The colony of Virginia was settled in 1607; the Plymouth colony in 1620. Shakespeare died in 1616. Locke’s Two Treatises on Government was published in 1689. The settlement of America emerges out of the world of Shakespeare, not Locke.[21] The importance of the Renaissance for the modern miracle is not just that key institutions developed in the period—including banking, insurance and joint-stock companies along with ocean-going technology. Even more importantly, the period produces a distinctive kind of thinking.

Luther’s posteriora Dei (what God reveals is concealed) and Calvin’s liberal scolds share a common structure of thought with Castiglione and Shakespeare.[22] Shakespeare’s “wicked meaning in a lawful deed” parallels the modern conservative precept that good intentions produce unintended bad consequences.[23] In The Book of the Courier Castiglione observed that “there is no contrary without a contrary”.[24] Society, he argued, is not a utopia. There is no good without evil, no health without infirmity, and no pleasure without pain.

Utopias, Goldberg notes, promise perfection in the absence of imperfection. This leads paradoxically to murderous suffering. In politics there is no good government without the “counterpoise and force” of opposition—that is without a balance of different competing powers, a mixed constitution. Similarly in the case of the modern miracle, there is no creation without destruction, no economic upswings without downswings, no growth without shrinkage, no competition without co-operation and no co-operation without competition.

This is not just an economic matter. For economics is embedded in metaphysics. As Luther put it, faith “has to do with things not seen”. Hence, he reasoned, in order that there may be room for faith, it is necessary that “everything which is believed should be hidden”. But he observed, a hidden thing “cannot, however, be more deeply hidden than under an object, perception or experience which is contrary to it”.[25] This is exactly the kind of paradox that underpins interesting societies and dynamic economies. This is not the fruit of the Enlightenment. Truth, as the Enlightenment understood it, is a function of logical consistency. Rational truth for many purposes is useful. But in other ways it falls short. The interesting truths are paradoxical, not logical.

There are many nominally liberal societies around the world. However, the stalwarts of the modern miracle are a very specific subset of those societies. Let’s call them the Shakespearean societies. There are a small number of them. I don’t think it is an accident that the other great modern success stories are a handful of East Asian states and city-regions that have a strong Taoist and Zen Buddhist undertow. Characteristically, Zen tries to free the mind from being enslaved by words and constricted by logic. It elevates paradoxical intuitions above prolix reasoning. Conservative realism parallels this. Shakespeare is the master of words who avoids one-sided reason with dramatic parallax. The way that contemporary political debate quickly descends into outrage and foot-stamping reminds us of the limits of reason. You can argue all you wish about “equality”, yet equality exists only in the company of inequality just as freedom does in the company of necessity.

Zen, like Taoism, might be described as part-philosophy, part-religion. Goldberg begins Suicide of the West saying that religion has been bracketed for the purpose of the book. God plays no role in the argument. That’s an understandable opening gambit. You don’t want God introduced as a deus ex machina, an implausible resolution of an unsolvable plot problem. Yet arguments that exclude God tend, as Goldberg does, to exclude necessity and destiny. That leaves us then just with freedom. As Goldberg emphasises, our future is a matter of choice. To suicide or not—to be or not to be—is an act of free will, a matter of liberty. Free will, like a free society, is crucial. But does it exist in, for and by itself—or does it exist in the company of determination, obligation, fortitude and faithfulness?

The past two centuries produced few great religious writers. Among them were Kierkegaard and Chesterton. One was a Protestant, the other Catholic. But both agreed that Christianity was a religion of paradox. Maybe even that paradox was another word for God. As Goldberg points out, we make choices about whether to maintain or trash the modern miracle. Yet those choices are also about whether or not we maintain a society in which there is no “contrary without a contrary”. To choose the modern miracle is to choose a society in which obligation walks hand-in-hand with freedom, losses accompany gains, pain attends pleasure, and greatness goes together with modesty—just as in the same way a miracle is an event in the natural world that is supernatural.

Goldberg is right. Modern life rests on an economic miracle. Goldberg is also wrong. For the idea of a “miracle” is not an Enlightenment metaphor. Yet in the end Goldberg trumps Goldberg. For the miracle of modernity is what turns his conservative “trade-offs” and “contradictions” into those enigmatic and kinetic unions that have powered modernity’s most successful societies. These unions fuelled our epoch’s extraordinary leap into a world of prosperity that previously was unthinkable.

Peter Murphy is the author of Civic Justice: From Greek Antiquity to the Modern World, and the co-author with David Roberts of Dialectic of Romanticism. His latest book, Limited Government: The Public Sector in the Auto-Industrial Age, was published last month by Routledge


[*] Jonah Goldberg, Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism and Identity Politics Is Destroying American Democracy. New York: Crown Forum, 2018, pp. 453, $23.

 

 


[1]              In 2006 David McKenzie and Hillel Rapoport observed the following about the Mexican expatriated workforce: “Mexican immigration to the US is of unprecedented magnitude and now exceeds 10 million individuals, about a third of the US foreign born population and 15 percent of the Mexican labor force. About half of these immigrants don’t have legal status against only 17 percent for all US immigrants.” Self-selection patterns in Mexico-U.S. migration: The role of migration networks, World Bank, August 2006.

[2]              From 19 active free trade agreements in 1990 to 79 in 2000, 176 in 2008 and 287 in 2018. World Trade Organization, Regional Trade Agreements Information System (RTA-IS).

[3]              Italy in 1863 had an infant mortality rate of 232 deaths per 1,000 live births. In 1921 the rate was 124 deaths per thousand; in 1960, 41 and today 3. Italy in figures 2011, National Institute of Statistics, p. 10.

[4]              The American Burkean conservative, Robert Nisbet, to the end remained of the view that intermediate institutions solve the pathologies of modern bureaucratic societies. See for example the concluding chapter of Twilight of Authority, Indianapolis, Liberty Fund, 2000 [1975]. Yet he was also realistic about how the bureaucratic spirit had also debased those institutions. As he put it, “the hospital reaches the point of serving not human illness primarily, but the hospital; the university, the church, the labor union, all become dominated, through processes of rationalisation, by their organizational goals…” The Sociological Tradition, London, Heinemann, 1967 [1966], p. 147. That Nisbet, in Twilight of Authority, grasped at the straw of the hippy “contemporary commune” (p. 258) as a sign of the revival of the intermediate association, was as much as anything a sure indicator of how far gone the ideal was.

[5]              J.G. Fichte, Addresses to the German Nation, Indianapolis, Hackett Publishing, 2013 (1808), Eighth Address.

[6]              Roger Scruton, “The Nation State and Democracy”, The Scruton Reader, London, Bloomsbury, 2011.

[7]              The arguments for protection have not changed in two centuries. For George Washington, tariffs to protect American manufactures were justified on national security grounds. After the War of 1812 with Britain, Thomas Jefferson grudgingly agreed. Henry Clay claimed that for trade to be free, it had to be “fair, equal and reciprocal”. This, he thought, would never exist. James Monroe concurred that free trade’s abstract reciprocity did not exist in reality. Andrew Jackson argued that instead of trade feeding Europe’s paupers and labourers, it should feed America’s. Abraham Lincoln insisted that tariffs did not hurt low-income consumers because they were a tax on luxuries. William McKinley declared that “under free trade the trader is the master and the producer the slave”.

[8]              Among the most interesting of contemporary scholars working on Fichte is the social theorist John Rundell who points out that Fichte’s idea of the self is built on an image of the romantic self “wavering” ceaselessly between boundaries and unboundedness. This romantic self oscillates between an autological world that the absolute ego creates and the empirical world it also creates. See Rundell, “Re-reading Fichte’s Science of Knowledge after Castoriadis: The anthropological imagination and the radical imaginary”, Thesis Eleven 119, 2013, pp. 3-21.

[9]              In 2018, the average tariff on vehicle products was: China 27%, South Korea 8%, the United States 2%, and the European Union 8%. As for non-tariff barriers placed on vehicle products, the comparative number of measures in force was: China 95, South Korea 35, the United States 427, and the European Union 172. World Trade Organization, Tariff Download Facility data.

[10]             It is true that a lot of China’s companies don’t compete “fairly”. Some pirate intellectual property. Others benefit from hidden state subsidies. As well China’s tariffs are moderately high. The classic-liberal solution to such a state of affairs is to go to court. Twentieth-century free trade was based on a system of international litigation. But, the argument goes, China is a mercantilist nation. It has a huge rust-belt that it subsidizes. What if it circumvents international law? In that circumstance the United States could create penalties against counterfeiters and state-subsidized enterprises that were enforceable in its own courts

[11]             Jonah Goldberg, “What is conservatism?”, a talk to the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI), September 21, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CL7ilna67Ws See also Goldberg, “What Is a ‘Conservative’?”, National Review, May 11, 2005.

[12]             Goldberg, “What is conservatism?” 4:19.

[13]             Goldberg, “What is conservatism?” 3:30.

[14]              A good example of the American romantic conservative is the former Nixon White House speechwriter, Patrick Buchanan, whose many books argue that a nation is built on a common ancestry, history, culture, and language. It is held together “by the bonds of history and memory, tradition and custom, language and literature, birth and faith, blood and soil” (Buchanan, State of Emergency: The Third World Invasion and Conquest of America, New York, St. Martin’s Press, 2006, p. 143). This view draws from Continental political romanticism and applies it to the United States. Buchanan counter-poses the “blood, birth and soil” view of the nation to the view of America as a creedal nation united in “ideals, ideas and principles of the constitution”. Quoting Joseph de Maistre (p. 146), he argues that all human beings are “tribal” beings. There is no such thing, he suggests, as the creedal “pure man” of Enlightenment philosophical declarations.

[15]             Goldberg, “What is conservatism?” 4:45. Goldberg’s view echoes the observation of Clinton Rossiter that “inconsistency rarely bothers the American mind. On the contrary, many of would insist that these inner tensions and contradictions are exactly what makes our tradition so stable and enduring.” Rossiter, Conservatism in America: The Thankless Persuasion, New York, Random House, 1962, p. 74.

[16]             Goldberg, p. 266, rightly argues that the nuclear family is responsible for much of the economic growth and democratic stability of the past three centuries and that correspondingly the norm of monogamy is crucial in every advanced democratic society.

[17]             Max Weber, “Science as a Vocation” in H.H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970 [1948], pp. 147-149.

[18]             James Burnham, The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom, London, Putnam, 1943.

[19]             The great Australian conservative writer and neo-Calvinist sociologist, John Carroll, describes this as a “second-order morality”, an ethic that embodies “harmony of form” and “quintessential balance or proportion”. It praises the “mystery of nature, of the universe, of a grand design of which man is but one tiny element. It inspires man with the glory of that design, connecting him to it.” Puritan, Paranoid, Remissive, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977, p. 56. Across multiple works from Ego and Soul (1998, 2008) and The Western Dreaming (2001) to The Existential Jesus (2007), Carroll explored how a non-moralizing “second-order morality” provides the spine for a non-decadent modernity based on characters, actions and institutions that exhibit grace, balance, form, and poise.

[20]             An alternative description of this kind of conservative is a Whig conservative. But this terminology has problems. The gifted English liberal-conservative Daniel Hannan interprets the liberal component of the liberal-conservative outlook as a Whig view of things. (Hannan, Inventing Freedom: How the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World, New York, HarperCollins, 2013). The problem with this is that Whig was a term for a powerful political grouping in English politics from the end of seventeenth century until the early nineteenth century. Like all political “parties”, modern and premodern, the Whigs changed many of their positions. They ended up being identified with liberal free trade and Catholic emancipation yet started out with opposite views. In the 1670s the Whigs were the parliament-backing, anti-French protectionist “party” while the Tories were the royalist “party” of free trade. In basic outline the former was the “party” of the proto-industrialising urban middle class. Nonetheless many of their number deserted Whig ranks for the Tories (who were aligned with country interests and the landowning classes) and rebadged themselves as “independent Whigs”. This convoluted historical process ended in the 1840s with the British Conservative party—the successor of the Tories—voting for free trade and then splitting over it, an act that it repeated in 1906. It is risky to try and identify a political-philosophical outlook or a set of principles of political economy with a party-political tendency or partisan grouping. The two things don’t gel. As for Whig principles, these were Lockean natural rights, religious toleration, free trade and parliamentary rule. What’s specifically “conservative” about these? One can make the argument made by Goldberg that, after 350 years, liberal principles are a tradition. Perhaps so. But this overlooks another key aspect of the Whig outlook—namely the preference for checks and balances. One of the best observers of this was Carl Schmitt. Schmitt was a counter-enlightenment Catholic conservative German political theorist with a predilection for Thomas Hobbes. He was briefly a Nazi jurist in the 1930s (till the Nazis sacked him). Schmitt’s politics were almost always wrong yet he came to very wrong conclusions based often on very acute intellectual insights. One of these concerned the Revolution of 1688 and the English Whig settlement. What followed from the settlement was an aesthetic view of politics—Schmitt mocked it, calling it “vanity”. Like Hobbes, Schmitt defined politics as a matter of decision. The Whig view in contrast defined it as a matter of aesthetics: placing the emphasis on balance and equilibrium rather than the shock and awe of decisions. Whigs—including, in Schmitt’s view, David Hume and Adam Smith—were preoccupied with beauty. Indeed most people don’t know that Adam Smith planned to finish his writings with a treatise on aesthetics that was never completed. It is this aspect of the Whig ethos that is conservative. It is the necessary companion of Lockean natural rights. Accordingly, as I’ve argued in Civic Justice (Amherst NY, Humanity Books, 2001) and elsewhere, beautiful order is a key to successful modernity. This, I think, solves a puzzle. Goldberg talks about Friedrich Hayek as the inspiration for Suicide of the West. But Goldberg notes also how coy Hayek was about describing himself as a conservative—indicating that only in one sense did he think of himself as a conservative. That is, as a classical liberal nonetheless rooted in the Anglo-American tradition of “Old Whigs” (The Constitution of Liberty, London, Routledge, 1960). That seems to me to be true in the sense that Hayek’s work is filled with admiration for self-organizing order. The weakness in Hayek though is his assumption that this order arises through the application of judge-discovered common law. What Schmitt rightly hints at, while mocking the idea, is that the distinctively Whig conservative notion of beautiful order—and its attendant properties of proportion, symmetry and ratio—has a broad application across economics, society and politics, not just in the arts. Hayek was familiar with Schmitt’s work. He comments on it in The Road to Serfdom and The Constitution of Liberty.

[21]             John Carroll offers a parallel, perhaps parallax, version of this argument about modernity in The Wreck of Western Culture (2004). Carroll’s conservative modernity begins not with William Shakespeare but with Martin Luther and John Calvin. In his story of modernity, the religious renaissance of the Reformation takes issue with the free-will humanism of the wider Renaissance era. It then mutates into a Baroque “alternative reformation” best represented in the paintings of Nicolas Poussin and the music of J.S. Bach.

[22]             Calvin: “There are people who are known to be very liberal, yet they never give without scolding or pride or even insolence” (Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life, 1550).

[23]             Shakespeare, All’s Well that Ends Well, III.VII.

[24]             Baldassare Castiglione, The Book of the Courier, New York, Dover, 2003, p. 76.

[25]             Luther, Bondage of the Will (1525).

0 comments
Post a comment