Bonfire of the Asininities
The last thing America needs is a “new politics.”
Dear Reader (Especially those of you letting me take a vacation from the Dear Reader gag),
I recorded a solo Remnant podcast this morning, and when I finished, I concluded it may be the worst one I’ve ever recorded—that I released. I mean, Episode 11 will never see the light of day. You couldn’t even lay eyes or ears on that without first surviving the Dark Trials, and what does it profit a man to gain a thumb drive yet lose his soul?
Anyway, I think part of the reason I had such trouble this morning is that I was struggling to articulate something that’s been bothering me all week. I wanted to write about it in the Wednesday G-File and ended up writing about third parties. Afterward, I felt like Bugs Bunny realizing he should have taken that left turn in Albuquerque.
So I’m going to blurt it out, like a giant piece of clay slapped on a table, and then I’ll try to trim and pinch it down so it looks sort of like the thing in my head.
So here’s the thwapping blob of clay: I hate new ideas.
Now let the tweaking commence: I don’t mean all new ideas. I’m a huge fan of innovation: antibiotics, stuffed crust pizza, supermarket self-checkout, asteroid mining—all the things that qualify as little victories in the quest for what Francis Bacon called “the relief of man’s estate.”
Similarly, I’m generally in favor of new ideas when it comes to public policy. The all-important caveat is that not all new ideas in public policy are necessarily good ideas. But if we can figure out how to collect garbage better or reduce CO2 emissions in a cost-efficient way, let’s give it a whirl.
But good public policy ideas are really technical or technological innovations and have more in common with science and engineering than we often think or want to acknowledge.
When it comes to art, broadly defined, I’m much more selective. A lot of innovation is crap while some of it is great. And sometimes it seems like crap at first but over time reveals itself to be great. Lots of folks hated jazz. Some of the greatest works by painters and novelists were reviled in their time. But most of the crappiest things ever set to canvas, paper, or celluloid were also reviled in their time—we just don’t remember that stuff. Winner’s bias is a thing.
What I’m really getting at are new ideas in politics and political philosophy. And the chief reason I hate innovations in this realm is that they’re almost never new. Take the two biggest political innovations of the 20th century, fascism and communism. Both of these new ideas were hailed as transformative and utterly novel. But stripped of all their gauzy adornment and scientific pretense, they were simply forms of faith-based tribalism and authoritarianism, two of the oldest ideas in politics and political philosophy.
Hitler’s Führerprinzip, the conceptual framework of Nazism, would have been utterly recognizable to Hammurabi. Mussolini’s definition of the state—everything within the state, nothing outside the state—would have been perfectly understandable to Plato.
Marx’s theory of history had some new bells and whistles, but when applied in the real world, it was simply an updating of caste or class resentment. There’s a reason all the Marxists loved Spartacus, because the arguments for the workers to throw off their shackles were old when Spartacus made them.
Both Bolshevism and Nazism were updates on tribal resentment. Bolshevism—rhetorically—was tribalism of one class. Nazism, tribalism of one race. In practice, they were modern-sounding rationales for the rule of aristocracy, under the guise of revolutionary party politics.
Nationalism was, for a while, seen as a new idea, too. As the tapestries of empire unraveled, the national patches in the quilt embraced ethnic or cultural identity as a new theory for answering “the social question.” But what is nationalism other than tribalism scaled beyond the borders of kin? How is nationalist economics different from statist or socialist economics? Answer: Not very.
Basically, there have only been two really new, really big, and really successful ideas in human, or at least Western, history. The first was born of Judaism and Christianity—the idea that the individual has innate moral value and dignity, regardless of class, caste, or tribe. The second, which stands atop the first, is liberal democratic capitalism. This idea subordinates the state by making it a piece of technology that serves the people chiefly by providing a legitimate way of making decisions in a free society. Plenty of kings and czars cast themselves as servants of their subjects. But the key word there is subjects. Pretty much whenever the principle was tested, the people served the state, personified by a ruler, not the other way around. The ruler’s interests might get gussied up with all sorts of theological or paternalistic junk, but what won out were the interests of the ruler and the ruling class.
Liberal democratic capitalism, the rule of law, and the sovereignty of individual rights overturned all that. Perhaps not always in practice, but conceptually it was a truly new idea, the only truly new idea in the history of political ideas.
Me vs. we.
Okay, enough with that. Let’s really get into the detail work on that lump of clay. I was once a producer for a TV show called Think Tank. The premise of the show was to take a single public policy idea and have actual experts debate it. After a while, it became obvious to me that pretty much every public policy idea is reducible, at the philosophical level, to the same perennial questions. Where does individual liberty intrude on the common good? At what point can the “we” dictate or circumscribe the actions of the “me”? When does the expertise of the state trump the freedom of the individual or the hidden-hand expertise of the market—which is simply the interplay of individual choices at scale? Homelessness, gun control, free speech, religious freedom, school choice, climate change, industrial policy, trade—take your pick. Argue about them long enough, and the details fall away like so much dirt and rock on an excavated fossil. It’s all Locke versus Rousseau or Smith versus Marx or Paine versus Burke.
But even those guys can be brushed away with the right tools. It’s all liberty versus order, individual versus collective, me versus we.
I want to be very clear about something: It’s not either/or. Pick the right issue and every champion of the individual will argue for the needs of society while every paladin of the collective will side with the sovereignty of an individual. Sometimes those defending the individual over the common good will argue that the true and enduring common good requires protecting the individual. That’s the basic argument for giving murderers and rapists defense lawyers. And sometimes the advocates for common good will make the case that their proposal will ultimately liberate the individual. That’s the argument for mandatory education.
Most homeless activists are of a socialist bent, arguing for an extremely generous welfare state, yet they often lobby for the right of individuals to defecate on the street on libertarian grounds. Conservatives love to talk about individual liberty, freedom of speech, and limited government, but many will be quick to shout “traitor!” at critics of a war they favor. We all have dual commitments to the me and the we. This is prior to political philosophy. It’s a divide running through every human heart.
New whines, old skins.
Right now, there’s a fad—and I do think it’s a fad—on the American right for central planning—i.e. industrial policy, protectionism, etc. To listen to its adherents, you’d think no one ever made such arguments before.
“I have been thinking,” Albert Jay Nock wrote 90 years ago, “of how old some of our brand-new economic nostrums really are. Price-regulation by State authority (through State purchase, like our Farm Board) was tried in China about 350 b.c. It did not work. It was tried again, with State distribution, in the first century a.d., and it did not work. Private trading was suppressed in the second century b.c., and regional planning was tried a little later. They did not work; the costs were too high. In the eleventh century a.d., a plan like the R.F.C. [Reconstruction Finance Corporation] was tried, but again cost too much. State monopolies are very old; there were two in China in the seventh century b.c. I suppose there is not a single item on the modern politician’s agenda that was not tried and found wanting ages ago.”
The idea that planners—our planners—are smarter than the market was old when Friedrich Hayek started dismantling it a century ago. It’s fine to argue that Hayek was wrong. I’ll disagree with you, but who cares? But please don’t tell me you’ve discovered arguments that never occurred to him. The burden is on you to explain why Chesterton’s fence should come down. And to meet that burden, you have to demonstrate why it went up in the first place.
The same goes for arguments about the failures of democracy, the rule of law, constitutionalism, etc. The only thing that makes such claims seem new is that they are so old, people have forgotten the arguments against them. It’s new to have conservatives arguing such things, but that doesn’t make the arguments new.
But there’s a deeper problem with new ideas in politics. They have a utopian, almost religiously salvific flavor to them.
For instance, in recent years, the left has become besotted with the idea of “anti-racism.” The opposite of racist, Ibram X. Kendi tells us, isn’t “not racist” but anti-racist. Because people on the left think this is a new idea, they don’t have any patience for the old arguments against this nonsense. If we just reorient every institution and rule of society to benefit people of color—variously defined—we will be able to enter some new Kingdom of Heaven where all human antagonisms are reconciled. Point out that such arguments—on behalf of Romans, Christians, Muslims, Teutons, Magyars, Catholics, Protestants, the proletariat, etc.—have all ended badly, and they look at you like you just don’t get it.
No, I get it.
I just believe that we worked out the answer to such questions a long time ago. Minority ethnic groups, tribes, faiths have always pressed for more—more justice or just more stuff. Sometimes they have good arguments, sometimes they don’t. And my response to all of them is the same. Equality before the law, regardless of class, color, or creed, is not just the only answer that has worked for the greater good over the long run, it’s also the only solution with any moral authority.
But the problem with new ideas isn’t just what they do to the believers. Their effect on the non-believers is corrupting, too. A lot of white people also believe that ideas like critical race theory and anti-racism are new. And so they think new bad ideas require new arguments against them. From this logic we get the riot of white identity politics and Christian nationalism belching forth from various gargoyles on the right. They, too, are mistaken when they think their ideas are new. If you feel like Marjorie Taylor Greene or Nick Fuentes have fresh and novel things to say, read a book and you’ll get over it. If you think Thomas Klingenstein is a fresh thinker for suggesting that the answer to all of our problems is a “manly man” to rule over us, you might be an unfrozen caveman. But Klingenstein’s rationale for He-Manism is telling. He thinks a strong man is required to fight what he calls the new threat of “woke communism.”
This is the dialectic of asininity that comes from new ideas under the guise of “new politics.” Whatever he thinks “woke communism” is, the answer to it isn’t a savior on a white horse (or escalator), it’s the same arguments based in fact, history, logic, and American principles.
So long as liberal democracy and the rule of law endure, there will be no new politics in America. Politics is the process by which individuals and groups decide how to allocate resources. American politics are constrained and defined by the pillars of our constitution and our rights-based tradition. There may be infinite variations to how that game is played, with new groups making new demands. New technologies may scramble the point at which we flip from prioritizing the me or the we. But the arguments are the same.
I’m not merely resigned to that, I celebrate it. Every important argument in a rights-based liberal order boils down to a question of rights. Abortion is a contest between two factions, both of whom care a lot about rights. They just score things differently. And so it is—or should be—with pretty much every important political argument.
What offends me profoundly about the dialectic of asininity is how it threatens to pull us out of that framework. Because so much of it isn’t about actual ideas at all, but about power and status. A democratic system of rights and the rule of law is, by design, a check on power and status. In some systems, the richest have more rights, as a matter of law and culture, than the poorest. In other systems, the right race or religion brings privileges and the wrong race or religion confers hardships. I’m not blind to the fact that in the real world such iniquity and inequality still exist in America. But they are not the realization of our laws or the principles that inform our laws and ideals, they are deviations from them.
I am open to every new idea under the sun for how we can better live up to our principles and ideals. But I am a stony place where your new ideas will find no purchase if you try to explain to me how our principles and ideals have outlived their utility, especially if your explanation depends on old ideas you don’t even know are old.
What, for God’s sake, is American conservatism supposed to conserve if not the principles and ideals that make America great?
Various & Sundry
Canine update: Yesterday we drove to Maine. It was a long drive but the girls did great. It’s disappointingly hot right now, but the house we’re in is next to a river and Pippa has made grand use of it. Zoë, meanwhile, has identified the groundhog civilization under our house and is maintaining the utmost vigilance to the threat. I haven’t had a chance to get many pictures, but I assure you that next week’s canine update will be content rich.
And now, the weird stuff