A book review:
Suicide of the West by Jonah Goldberg
In Suicide of the West Jonah Goldberg begins with Deirdre McCloskey’s recognition that the last 250 years of progress in the context of the 400,000 years of the appearance of man, or even the last 5,000 years of recorded civilization is nothing short of miraculous. McCloskey covered this in her three books, Bourgeois Dignity, Bourgeois Equality, and Bourgeois Virtues. The openness of ideas and contributions from the middle class marked the dividing point. Economics alone does not explain this departure. Man had been trading for millennias.
The respect for established authority hindered this progress in the far east. British ships appeared in Chinese ports, but Chinese ships did not reciprocate. Eventually this combination of capitalism, middle class values, and addiction to progress spread from England to The Netherlands and to the American Colonies, and then throughout the world.
Goldberg does not dwell on the various theories of why it happened where it did. There are several reasonable explanations that McCloskey covered well before she postulated her own. Goldberg’s mission was twofold. First to recognize that it did happen. As obvious as it is, it remains unrecognized in modern political debates.
And yet, in the modern era, every generation takes the Miracle for granted. We are told, by people who should know better, that capitalism is making us sicker, poorer, and more exploited. That we are falling farther behind and therefore must look even farther behind us to some mythological golden age when we had it better. One typical poll result revealed that 66 percent of Americans believe that extreme poverty has “almost doubled in the past 20 years, 29 percent think it has not changed, whereas only 5 percent correctly stated that it has halved.” The numbers are no better elsewhere in the developed world: 58 percent of Britons assumed extreme poverty had increased and a third thought it had stayed the same. 121 These pessimists answer in vain Thomas Babington Macaulay’s inquiry: “On what principle is it, that when we see nothing but improvement behind us, are we to expect nothing but deterioration before us?” 122
Secondly, Goldberg recognizes that this accident of history is not a natural progression; an inevitable ‘arc of history’. There is no right side of history. This progress required the taming of man’s natural tendencies for self-preservation from his more brutal environments. The spirit of cooperation across family, ethnic and tribal boundaries required discipline and trust that do not come naturally. This was provided by moderating institutions that enforced the behavior that facilitated our progress. These institutions lay somewhere between the selfish individuals and the supreme power of the state. Without these institutions the state must become more tyrannical to restrain these impulses.
The romantic notion of the noble savage, that man is inherently peaceful and is corrupted by our civilization, is the basis of Jacques Rousseau, the French Revolution, Karl Marx, and modern socialism. The idea of modern conservativism, that man has genetic predispositions that must be contained in order for his better side to flourish, is attributed to John Locke. This distinction does much to explain the differences between the French and American revolutions. Apparently, it takes far more tyranny to perfect man than to be satisfied to merely control his baser impulses.
Socialism and its cousin, Progressivism, are not the forward-thinking ideologies they pretend, but regressions to the natural tendencies of man.
The free-market system depends on values, ideas, and institutions outside of the realm of economics to function, a topic I covered in the second half of this book. But for now the important point is this: The free-market system is not merely the best anti-poverty program ever conceived; it is quite literally the only anti-poverty system ever invented. Poverty is the natural human condition, and it remained the steady state of human affairs for nearly all of human history. Socialism as a label is a relatively recent invention. But socialism as an idea is beyond ancient. Socialism is the economics of the tribe. We evolved as a cooperative, resource-sharing species. This is one reason why the idea of socialism keeps coming back. It’s in our brains, alongside myriad other factory-preset ideas and desires: that capitalism is unnatural; individual liberty and free speech are unnatural; liberal democratic capitalism is at war with human nature in every generation.
As our government’s central power has grown and assumed responsibilities once held by other institutions, these restraints have deteriorated, leaving more people alienated from the government. In the absence or reduction of the identity, power, and meaning from the mediating institutions (local government, local Chamber of Commerce, church, Rotary and local clubs, Boy Scouts, etc), greater emphasis is placed on the identity with national politics. This has led to the extreme partisanship, identity politics, and populism that infects us.
The assumption of these functions by the central government is not the only contributor. Globalism and social media also matter.
Capitalism cannot provide meaning, spirituality, or a sense of belonging. Those things are upstream of capitalism. And that’s okay. Capitalism is an economic system that is fantastic at doing what we claim we want from economic systems: growth and prosperity. The problem is that what we say we want from an economic system and what we actually want are often different things. Economics is a sphere of the larger civilization, and we want more than what mere capitalism can provide. We want meaning. We want to feel like we’re part of the tribe. But just as a hammer makes for a terrible knife, capitalism is a tool ill-suited for filling the holes in our souls.
Meaning comes from family, friends, faith, community, and countless little platoons of civil society. When those institutions fail, capitalism alone cannot restore them. As a result, human nature starts making demands of the political and economic systems that neither can possibly fulfill. Liberty, economic and political, is recast as the source of our problems. Having lost faith in other realms, we lose faith in the Miracle itself, and we cast about for what feels more natural: tribalism, nationalism, or socialism in one guise or another.
The lack of recognition and appreciation of the Miracle makes the institutions that support it vulnerable. The conservatives’ willingness to compromise this recognition in support of Trump is particularly disturbing. While this may be rationalized as the lesser of two evils, it also undermines their ability to hold the moral high ground when they are no longer in the majority. They may have won the battle, but they are left weaker for the following engagements.