Be Smart: "Post-Liberalism" Isn't the Answer
It helps to remember what "pre-liberalism" was like.
Dear Reader (Including agents of a foreign government with “oppo research” to share),
So I know I call this thing a “news”letter, but I seldom actually kick it newsletter style (one of the least intimidating Kung fu techniques ever). That might be because this thing actually has its roots in the primordial blog and pre-blog epochs of the Internet. Or it might be because, when it comes to writing these things, I only have slightly more writerly self-discipline than Kellen Winslow Jr. has masturbatory self-mastery (that dude is gonna have an interesting time in prison).
But now that I am heading off to become some kind of media mogul, I’ve been studying the newsletter format. The Friday version of the G-File will hew to its traditional form, but I need to get up to speed on this “smart brevity” thing that our friends at Axios and elsewhere have pioneered.
So, in the spirit of Homer Simpson when he attempted to breed his pets to form a miracle hybrid with the loyalty of a cat and the cleanliness of a dog, I’m going to start trying to cram the traditional G-File with the new modern newsletter style read by the sorts of go-getters who wear belts and need their news and analysis presented in bullet points with lots of charts and data under headers like “The One Big Thing You Need To Know Today” and “Why CHUDs May Be Making a Comeback.” Admittedly, it will be a difficult transition.
News You Can Use: Liberalism Didn’t Fail
The effort to make “post-liberalism” something more than “fetch” in Mean Girls parlance continues apace. But the best and most influential (recent) book for this crowd remains Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed. I like both the book and its author, but then I have always had a soft spot for those who stand athwart history and take out their red pens. My problem with Why Liberalism Failed is that it is an intellectual historian’s version of a prosecutor’s brief. It’s not the District Attorney’s job to make the case for the defendant, and Deneen stays true to that calling. (That’s why anyone who reads Why Liberalism Failed should also read Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, because Pinker basically does the same thing in defense of the Enlightenment. Meanwhile, my own Suicide of the West splits the difference.)
For general fans of the Enlightenment, if you read (or reread in my case) Why Liberalism Failed, you will find the silences somewhat maddening. He basically throws John Locke in the dock and then enters into evidence every modern malady as the natural consequence of Locke’s second treatise. It’s a bit like the effort to blame David French for Drag Queen Story Hour.
Tellingly, there’s a whiff of Rousseau to it all. Rousseau said that man is born free but is everywhere in chains because then-modern society required too much of the individual. Deneen writes that liberalism’s “defenders often point to the liberation of women from conditions of inequality as a significant example of liberalism’s success, and regard any critique of liberalism as a proposal to thrust women back into preliberal bondage.”
You’d think this would be a set-up for saying, “Of course, that’s not what post-liberals want.” Rather, he goes on to bemoan that the “main practical achievement of this liberation of women has been to move many of them into the workforce of market capitalism,” which Deneen suggests is really bad. “Liberalism posits that freeing women from the household is tantamount to liberation, but it effectively puts women and men alike into a far more encompassing bondage.”
There are many possible responses to this. But the most obvious one is that that the need to work is not bondage to the market order, but to reality. In every economic system that has existed, from subsistence societies to feudalism, socialism, and communism, some people – most people – have to work. So many criticisms of America or capitalism or liberal democracy raise the “compared to what?” problem. In the post-liberal integralist New World Order, will people not need to work? Or will only men need to work? If the idea is that the division of labor will be one where women stay home with the kids and men go out to work, the post-liberals should say so. They should also say by what means this regime will be implemented.
The Relief of (Wo)man’s Estate
But there’s another problem: Liberalism is only part of the reason why women were liberated from “domestic” work. Another is science, which, admittedly, thrives in liberal orders. But its effects are felt in every society that adopts modern technology. In pre-industrial societies, “women’s work” is work. John Locke didn’t liberate women from backbreaking labor; the washing machine, the dishwasher, and the industrial production of food and clothing did. Women – and men – are as free as they ever were to churn their own butter, sew their own clothes, and grow their own wheat. But they’d rather do something else with their time. That’s not bondage.
You know what is bondage? Nature. What I mean is that, in a state of nature, we are slaves to necessity, vassals to the vicissitudes of weather, climate, geography, and disease. Science and technology bring about “the relief of man’s estate,” in the words of Francis Bacon, by reducing the cost – in time, labor, and resources – of necessities. In prehistoric society, producing 1,000 lumen hours of light required chopping wood for 10 hours a day for six days. That’s 54 minutes worth of your average lightbulb. Living in darkness – literal darkness – is a kind of bondage. Light is liberating.
In other words, while I am sympathetic to the concerns about the downsides of living in a technologically advanced liberal regime, the upsides are pretty awesome. And while you might want to trade the conveniences of modern medicine and transportation for a more enchanted, integralist order, you don’t have the right to make that trade for me.
The One Chart That Should Make You Grateful for Liberalism
Over at his indispensable Our World In Data website, Max Roser released this remarkable graphic:
Roser notes that from 10,000 BCE until 1700, world population only grew at an estimated annual rate of .04%. That’s weird, given that the fertility rate was usually around 6 children per woman or higher. Today, if the American fertility rate was 6 children per woman, our population would triple in a single generation (with or without a wall at the border). You know why? Because our kids tend not to die. But until 1700, that’s not how it worked. For most of human history, roughly a quarter of babies died before their first birthday and half died before the age of maturity.
Why This Should Matter to Post-Liberals
For understandable and legitimate reasons, one of the main drivers of a desire for a post liberal order is the issue of abortion. The underlying theological argument behind opposition to abortion is that the unborn are human beings – human beings with souls, according to many. A rightly ordered political regime, they argue, should recognize this. Well, in the sort of Catholic-infused, integralist, pre-liberal order that many post-liberals seem to pine for, there was a lot less abortion, but there were also a lot more dead babies. And it’s not just dead children. Everyone died younger prior to liberalism’s advance. That’s because liberalism is the best system ever conceived of to get strangers to stop killing each other (not to mention the best system for generating the prosperity and technology that prevent early deaths). One could argue that Christianity in theory does the same thing, but in practice that wasn’t the case. That’s why liberal pluralism emerged in the wake of the wars of religion not as a replacement for religion, but as a means to get people of different religions or, more specifically, people with different interpretations of the same religion to stop slaughtering each other. As the historian C.V. Wedgewood put it, liberalism was born out of the recognition of “the essential futility of putting the beliefs of the mind to the judgment of the sword.”
It’s fine to bemoan the disenchantment of the world that came with the scientific revolution, but let’s take a moment to celebrate how technology has done more to contribute to an actual culture of life than the innovation-stifling regimes of yesteryear.
In the Thicke of It
Did you know that Canadian sex symbol Alan Thicke was an accomplished TV theme song composer? (I bring this up because this “news”letter gives you information that you can barely use but can never forget.) He co-wrote the theme songs for Diff’rent Strokes and The Facts of Life. In the latter, the refrain is “you take the good, you take the bad, you take them both and there you have the facts of life, the facts of life.” (This “news”letter also gives you earworms that will ruin your day.)
This a fundamentally conservative insight. As I often say, the essence of conservatism is comfort with contradiction. There are few unalloyed good things in this life. And even the things that are indisputably good – love, friendship, and, some would argue, sincere faith – come with costs. Anyone who has lost a loved one knows that sorrow is often the price one must eventually pay. Even if you haven’t, love requires sacrifice and compromise that are hard to reconcile with purely rational self-interest (Chesterton reminds us that the purely rational man will not marry, the purely rational soldier will not fight).
I bring this up because ,while I am a huge fan of both liberalism and technology, I am happy to acknowledge that they both have downsides.
I can make a semi-persuasive case that the greatest force driving the rise of the administrative state wasn’t some brain fart from Woodrow Wilson or Walter Lippmann, but another guy whose name began with “W” – Will Carrier, the inventor of air-conditioning. The work product of bureaucrats and legislators is tightly correlated with the prevalence of artificially cooled air. The West Wing got air conditioning in 1930. FDR added it to his private quarters in 1933. In 1936, the Federal Register added 2,620 pages. In 2018, it added 64,582 (that’s in a single year). Prior to A.C., Washington was a ghost town in summer. In 1955, when the Feds realized air conditioning boosted productivity, they retrofitted all of the government buildings.
Should we get rid of air conditioning in Washington? If your answer is yes, fine. I can appreciate a vindictive streak as much as the next guy. But by that logic, why not simply release wolverines into all government buildings or require workers to walk over hot coals to get to their desks? I mean, if the goal is to reduce government productivity, there are plenty of more inventive options that have the added benefit of being entertaining if televised. The point is that technology both creates and forecloses options in ways that purely intellectual exercises tend to be blind to (as I wrote here).
Conservatism does not have a monopoly on wisdom, but I do believe that conservatism properly understood is inseparable from wisdom. Wise people of all political orientations recognize that the only hard decisions in life are between two (or more) good options or two (or more) bad options. One needn’t be a sage to know that it’s better to eat ice cream than get poked in the eye with a sharp stick. And every right decision still involves trade-offs.
But most of life doesn’t come at you in the simple form of either/or choices. Life is stuff that happens around you, and often the best you can do is choose when to swim with the tide and when to swim against it. “To live is to maneuver,” Bill Buckley liked to say (quoting Whitaker Chambers). That’s the weird thing about the post-liberals. They are constantly inveighing against Lockean individualism, radical personal autonomy, and the exultation of choice. And yet, they think replacing the market order with a functioning system aimed at “the Highest Good” is something they/we can just choose to do. They share a hubris with progressives, who think that the only thing that is stopping us from full-employment with socialized medicine and green jobs – or even “Fully Automated Luxury Communism” – is a handful of elites choosing not to implement it. If only the “libertarians” running America would choose to switch to the Tuckerverse, where we could have a socially conservative nationalist welfare state where women will want to make a lot more babies. One doesn’t have to believe in radical autonomy to understand that one person cannot choose what another person wants or believes. The best you can do is try to persuade them your position is right. And even then, reality might be harder to persuade.
Various & Sundry
If you initially signed up for the Hayes Goldberg joint and all you’ve gotten so far is the G-File, you might feel like the blind guy when given a piece of matzoh: “Who writes this stuff?” My apologies. Then again, if you’ve read this far, you already know what you’ve signed up for. Regardless, more, different, and – dare I say – better stuff is on the way. We’re still in the very early stages these days, and we wanted to keep the G-File coming for the loyalists (thank you!) and to help recreate the original G-File subscriber list in time for the actual launch later this year. If you know people who like the G-File – or who might like it – please forward this to them and have them sign up at Reagan35x.com.
Happy Father’s Day everybody. Traditionally, I post my eulogy to my Dad over at the Corner. But this year, I’ll just link to it here. I can’t believe it’s been 14 years.
Canine Update: We’re officially a little worried about Zoë. Her lethargy seems excessive, even if you account for her modest weight gain (we’re working on that). We’ll be taking her to the vet this week to see if there’s something apaw. She doesn’t seem to be suffering; she’s just a bit slower and mellower than she should be, never mind compared to what she used to be like (Pippa meanwhile continues to be a dynamo). But Zoë’s dingo instincts remain intact. She still wants to kill rabbits; she just doesn’t seem able to muster the energy to go after them the way she used to. Interestingly, the other day on a walk with Kirsten, Zoë and Pippa spotted a frog. Pippa immediately went over to investigate it. But the normally inquisitive Zoë hung back. Kirsten couldn’t figure out why the frog stayed still in the face of a spaniel schnozzle or why Zoë was reticent. She went over to get a closer look and spotted a big snake about a foot away. Given that Carolina dogs are swamp dogs, it’s not surprising she has a Jungian aversion to serpents. Meanwhile, the closest Pippa’s forebears got to snakes was when the occasional Fabian socialist went on a bird hunt. The frog was rescued and the snake was avoided. Meanwhile, they’re having a grand time with the surprisingly mild summer (so far).
I’ll be on Special Report tonight and I am scheduled to be on NPR’s Morning Edition on Monday.
And now the other stuff.
As with Superheroes, Trump’s Superpowers Have Their Limitations
Mudslinging among conservatives is burying any hope for post-Trump reconciliation
If Jack has sacrificed the correct amount of goats, then there should – should – be a new episode the Remnant, available to you in all the same ways as the old (minus an availability on National Review), out shortly after this G-File comes out. If he has sacrificed the wrong amount of goats, then Gozer the Gozerian will return to our dimension.
Let's hope he sacrificed the right amount.
And now, the weird stuff.
Debby’s Monday links
Food delivery by drone
52 kids died last year trapped in hot cars
Ladybugs are kind of gross
Ancient flying reptiles
Star Trek logo spotted on Mars
Live shellfish on menu in Japan
Plastic bee's nest
Asbestos infused makeup
Candy bars: ranked
A solar powered Six Flags
2,500 year old marijuana found in China
Fever dreams explained