Freedom is a fragile thing and is never more than one generation away from extinction. It is not ours by inheritance; it must be fought for and defended constantly by each generation, for it comes only once to a people. Those who have known freedom and then lost it have never known it again.
— Ronald Reagan, 1967
Let’s begin with some somewhat unusual assertions for these pages.
Capitalism is unnatural. Democracy is unnatural. Human rights are unnatural. God didn’t give us these things, or anything else. We stumbled into modernity accidentally, not by any divine plan.
When the Founders said “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, . . .” they cheated. It is not self-evident that our Creator endowed humans with unalienable rights. Something self-evident is, by definition, obvious, needing no demonstration. The existence of gravity is obvious. It is self-evident that fire burns. Yet it’s hardly obvious to everyone there’s even a Creator.
And that brings me to another assertion: There is no God, at least not in this argument. I assert this not because I’m an atheist (I’m not), but because I don’t want God’s help for my case. “Because God says so” is the greatest appeal to authority, and the appeal to authority is a classic logical fallacy, effective only for those who are pre-committed to that authority. You can’t persuade an atheist that God’s on your side any more than you can persuade a Christian you’re right because Baal says so.
Yet today’s political culture increasingly rejects persuasion, recognized as far back as Aristotle as the essence of politics. Everything noble about the Enlightenment assumes the possibility of persuasion, through reason, evidence, and argument. Our political system was designed to be deliberative. Deliberation is a waste of time if minds cannot be changed. But today, partisans left and right value purity and passion over persuasion. Opponents aren’t potential converts; they’re an abstract and unredeemable them, and their tears, we’re told, are delicious.
William F. Buckley Jr. founded National Review to match the Left’s best arguments head-on with the Right’s best arguments. We didn’t win every battle (and some battles we didn’t deserve to win), but conservatism’s strength and success derived from a fearless desire to argue the merits. National Review has stayed loyal to that mission, but much of the conservative movement it helped create has resorted to assertion over argument, invective over reason. I want my argument to persuade those who don’t already agree with me — on the left and, increasingly, on the right.
Those who hate capitalism, scorn the Founding, and assume that Western civilization is inherently villainous or oppressive will be persuaded they are wrong only by arguments on terms they accept. And today, those terms are secular, often atheist, materialistic, Darwinian, and utilitarian. So let’s meet them on their turf.
Humans are animals. We evolved from other animals, who evolved from ever more embarrassing animals, and before that from a humiliating sea of primitive critters in the primordial stew. Almost everything we take for granted today — technology, prosperity, medicine, human rights, the rule of law — is a novel, unnatural environment for humans, created by humans.
Joshua Greene of Harvard’s Moral Cognition Laboratory offers a useful thought experiment (which I’ve modified slightly). Imagine you were an alien monitoring the progress of Homo sapiens on backwater Earth, visiting once every 10,000 years.
Starting 250,000 years ago, you would record the following:
Visit 1: Bands of semi-hairless, upright, nomadic apes foraging and fighting for food.
Visit 2: Bands of semi-hairless, upright, nomadic apes foraging and fighting for food. No change.
Visit 3: Bands of semi-hairless, upright, nomadic apes foraging and fighting for food. No change.
You’d write virtually the same thing roughly 23 times over 230,000 years, a few modestly interesting details about changes in migration, diet, and crude tools notwithstanding. On the 24th visit, you’d note some remarkable developments. Many scattered human populations have discovered basic agriculture and animal domestication. Some use metal for weapons and tools. Clay pottery has advanced considerably. Rudimentary mud and grass shelters dot some landscapes (introducing a fairly recent concept in human history: the home). But there are no roads, no stone buildings.
Still, an impressive advance in such a short time: merely 100 centuries.
Returning 10,000 years later, your spaceship would doubtless get spotted by NORAD. You might even arrive in time to see Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction.
In short: Nearly all of humanity’s progress has transpired in the last 10,000 years.
But even this is misleading. It’s like saying that the combined net worth of Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, and me exceeds $150 billion. For 97 percent of that 10,000 years, nearly all of humanity lived in squalor. If the Garden of Eden existed, it was a slum.
Almost everything about modernity, progress, and enlightened society emerged in the last 300 years. If the last 200,000 years of humanity were one year, nearly all material progress came in the last 14 hours. In the West, and everywhere that followed our example, incomes rose, lifespans grew, toil lessened, energy and water became ubiquitous commodities.
Virtually every objective, empirical measure that capitalism’s critics value improved with the emergence of Western liberal-democratic capitalism. Did it happen overnight? Sadly, no. But in evolutionary terms, it did.
Among economists and anthropologists, this is “settled science.” Economists left and right might bicker over minor details, but they agree that poverty is man’s natural environment. As economist Todd G. Buchholz puts it, “For most of man’s life on earth, he has lived no better on two legs than he had on four.” Nobel Prize–winning economist Douglass C. North and his colleagues write in Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History that “over the long stretch of human history before 1800, the evidence suggests that the long-run rate of growth of per capita income was very close to zero.” Economic historian David S. Landes is not exaggerating when he writes, “The Englishman of 1750 was closer in material things to Caesar’s legionnaires than to his own great-grandchildren.” For roughly 7,500 generations, everywhere in the world — ancient China and Rome, medieval Europe and Aztec-era Mexico — the average person lived on the equivalent of $3 per day.
Of course, material prosperity isn’t everything. But the progress didn’t stop there. Rapes, deaths by violence and disease, slavery, illiteracy, torture have all declined massively, while rights for women, minorities, the disabled have expanded dramatically. And, with the exception of slavery, which is a more recent human innovation made possible by the agricultural revolution, material misery was natural and normal for us. Then suddenly, almost overnight, that changed.
What happened? We stumbled into a different world. Following sociologist Robin Fox and historian Ernest Gellner, I call this different world “the Miracle.”
I say “Miracle” because it evokes a glorious but inexplicable mystery, not because it was bequeathed by the Almighty (if God intended us to have free markets and property rights and democracy, He sure waited a while to bequeath them). Nobody knows why the Miracle happened. Or, more accurately, no one can agree on why it happened. Marxists credit surplus capital derived from the industrial revolution, slavery, imperialism, and so on. Others attribute it to the scientific revolution or the Protestant Reformation. I address these theories in my new book Suicide of the West. But in brief: While some factor greatly in the story, none can sufficiently demystify the Miracle.
Ultimately, no theory of the Miracle alters its accidental nature. Marx’s “science” of historical inevitability is nonsense, an appeal to authority equivalent to invoking divine providence. Marxist development theories are deus ex machina arguments sans deus. Even so, Marxism itself concedes that human will didn’t create liberal-democratic capitalism; rather, the theory claims it’s an epiphenomenon arising from the dialectical clash of inevitable historical forces.
Or consider a more plausible theory, associated with Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism: Capitalism emerged from a Reformation-initiated theological reorientation, specifically among some Puritan sects. These pious Protestants modeled certain virtues — “thrift,” “delayed gratification,” “industriousness” — that eventually created the surplus capital to jump-start industry.
Like Christianity generally, Protestantism surely helped enable the Miracle, but this theory is wrong — or at least insufficiently right. John Calvin didn’t invent thrift or hard work. But, as with Marxism, the Weberian thesis is correct: Capitalism is still an accident. Puritan preachers didn’t hawk a “prosperity gospel.” Indeed, they preached nearly the opposite: that if you lived piously and honestly it might signify you were among the Elect destined for Heaven. It just turned out that this guidance also made you likelier to become wealthy. Thus, the Weberian thesis (which Weber later rejected) holds that capitalism was an accidental unintended by-product of the Protestant ethic.
Why stress that the Miracle was both unnatural and accidental? Because Western civilization generally, and America particularly, is on a suicidal path. The threats are many, but beneath them all is one constant, eternal seducer: human nature. Modernity often assumes that we’ve conquered human nature as much as we’ve conquered the natural world. The truth is we’ve done neither. We simply restrain each from generation to generation. If you’ve ever owned a boat, car, or house, you know that nature needs only time and opportunity to reclaim everything. Rust doesn’t sleep. Termites respect a grandfather clock no more than an outhouse. Abandon a car in a field, and all nature requires to turn it back to the soil is time. Preventing decay and entropy from reclaiming everything built by human hands requires vigilant upkeep. As Horace said, “You may drive nature out with a pitchfork, but she will keep coming back.”
What is true of physical things is also true of civilizations. And the termite threatening the Miracle’s foundations is human nature itself. Today, we understand corruption as petty graft or bribery. This barely shows the deep cultural significance the concept once held. Before the scientific revolution, corruption was one of life’s central metaphors. When food rotted, when wounds were infected, it was corruption, because nature reclaimed what was hers.
And when humans gave in to their true natures, this was corruption, too. Judaism and Christianity consider human nature sordid and dangerous. Turning to God requires turning away from our natures, particularly the flesh’s “corruptions.” In Christianity, the worldly can corrupt. “You adulterous people!” exclaims the Epistle of James. “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.”
Nearly all of our laws and customs, from marriage and prohibition of murder to the concept of merit, restrain human nature. For instance, nepotism and favoritism are natural. People prefer family and friends in every society that has ever existed. Westerners often consider developing countries such as Afghanistan corrupt because their political systems proceed from tribal reciprocity. But Afghans and others argue that their ways are ancient and natural. And they’re right. Our system of merit, contracts, blind bidding, etc. is what’s unnatural.
The story of Western civilization, and really civilization itself, is the story of productively sublimating human nature. The Catholic Church had to establish elaborate rules against familial favoritism. We get the word “nepotism” from the Italian nepotismo, which referred to popes’ and bishops’ installing “nephews” (their children and other relatives) in powerful positions throughout the Church. The Chinese and the Turks castrated bureaucrats and slave soldiers, vainly hoping to constrain human nature.
Such tactics worked, temporarily. But groups’ natural tendency to assert their self-interest made such techniques untenable. That is because we’re wired with a “coalition instinct,” an evolutionary adaptation from millennia in which our species sought safety in the tribe against other tribes (as pioneering evolutionary psychologist John Tooby has written). This coalition instinct forms the heart of what people mean by the modern American rise of “tribalism.” Every kind of identity politics — from racial solidarity to ethno-nationalism to ancient notions of hereditary nobility — feeds off this instinct. According to Yale’s Paul Bloom, “neither race nor language is necessary to sort people into coalitions. . . . It takes very little to make a coalition that really matters: to establish group loyalty, to pit people against one another.”
Tribalism explains why liberals decry the anti-Semitism of David Duke or the alt-right but meekly excuse Louis Farrakhan, why Evangelicals excused Roy Moore while pushing Al Franken from the Senate. And it explains why many conservatives have changed many longstanding positions to accommodate President Trump. Trump is in the tribe. Indeed, he’s created his own tribe, in which he’s a symbol, a totem, an avatar of the tribal us. That is why many of his supporters insist that insulting him is insulting them. For the Left, and for some on the right, the dogma-bending power of this personality cult was shocking. But the often messianic devotion to Barack Obama also stunned the Right. That’s the thing about the coalition instinct: Inside the tribe, you’ll think the rules differ for your teammates.
The Founders closely studied human nature, recognizing the dangers of despots and despotic majorities alike. They knew that humans would coalesce around common interests, forming “factions.” They also understood that you can’t repeal human nature. So, unlike their French contemporaries, they didn’t try. Instead, they established our system of separated powers and enumerated rights so that no faction, including a passionate majority, could use the state’s power against other factions.
But the Founders’ vision assumed many preconditions, the two most important of which were the people’s virtue and the role of civil society. “The general government . . . can never be in danger of degenerating into a monarchy, an oligarchy, an aristocracy, or any despotic or oppressive form so long as there is any virtue in the body of the people,” George Washington argued.
People learn virtue first and most importantly from family, and then from the myriad institutions family introduces them to: churches, schools, associations, etc. Every generation, Western civilization is invaded by barbarians, Hannah Arendt observed: “We call them children.” Civil society, starting with the family, civilizes barbarians, providing meaning, belonging, and virtue.
But here’s the hitch. When that ecosystem breaks down, people still seek meaning and belonging. And it is breaking down. Its corruption comes from reasons too numerous and complex to detail here, but they include family breakdown, mass immigration, the war on assimilation, and the rise of virtual communities pretending to replace real ones.
First, the market, as Joseph Schumpeter argued, maximizes efficiency with relentless rationality, tending to break down the sinews of tradition and the foundations of civil society that enable and instill virtue. Yet those pre-rational virtues make capitalism possible in the first place.
Second, capitalism also creates a mass class of resentful intellectuals, artists, journalists, and bureaucrats who are professionally, psychologically, and ideologically committed to undermining capitalism’s legitimacy (as noted by Schumpeter and James Burnham, the author of another book titled “Suicide of the West”). This adversarial elite is its own coalition.
Thus, people increasingly look to Washington and national politics for meaning and belonging they can’t find at home. As Mary Eberstadt recently argued, the rise in identity politics coincided with family breakdown, as alienated youth looked to the artificial tribes of racial or sexual solidarity for meaning. Populism, which always wants the national government to solve local problems, is in vogue on left and right precisely because local institutions and civil society generally no longer do their jobs. Indeed, populism is its own tribalism, because “We the People” invariably means “my people.” As Jan-Werner Müller notes in his book What Is Populism?: “Populism is always a form of identity politics.”
A video at the 2012 Democratic National Convention proclaimed that “government is the only thing we all belong to.” For conservatives, this was Orwellian. But for many Americans, it was an invitation to belong. That was the subtext of “The Life of Julia” and President Obama’s call for Americans to emulate SEAL Team Six and strive in unison — towards his goals.
This points to the greatest, but not the only, threat human nature poses. Because the Miracle is unnatural, unless we’re properly civilized to understand and appreciate it, we look to restore what instinctively feels natural. As individualism feels more atomizing and alienating, the siren song of the group, the tribe, or the gang becomes increasingly seductive. We evolved to hate inequality because group survival required sharing resources. But envy is a deadly sin for a reason, and when a civilization surrenders to it, the Miracle dies.
In The Fatal Conceit, Friedrich Hayek argued that humans evolved in small tribes. In this “microcosmos,” the rules differ from the rules in the “macrocosmos” of liberty’s extended order. For instance, most of us have socialist, even Marxist, families. We don’t charge our children for food and rent. The family follows the dictum of “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”
When people say that the government or the nation is — or should be — like a family (or a military unit or any other microcosmic group), they argue for erasing everything that enables the Miracle. But that is what people crave today.
I find economic historian Deirdre McCloskey’s explanation for the Miracle most persuasive, even if I quibble with it somewhat. Why did the Miracle happen? We talked ourselves into it. Words (or rhetoric) changed; we changed with them. What McCloskey calls “bourgeois virtues” were vices until John Locke’s time. Innovation, viewed suspiciously by every ruling class worldwide historically, was sinful in Europe for millennia for challenging the established order of throne, altar, and guild. Then, suddenly, that changed because the way we talked about ourselves changed. The Lockean ideas that our rights come from God, not government, that we’re citizens, not subjects, that the fruits of our labors belong to us, because the individual — not the state or tribe or class — was sovereign took hold not just among a few scattered philosophers such as Locke and Adam Smith, but among the people. It was a cultural revolution that happened in only one place and time, in England (and, to be fair, Holland).
The American Founding’s glory is that those English colonists took their cousins’ tradition, purified it into a political ideology, and extended it farther than the English ever dreamed. And they wrote it down, thank God. The Founding didn’t apply these principles as universally as its rhetoric implied. But that rhetoric was transformative. When the Declaration of Independence was written, some dismissed the beginning as flowery boilerplate; what mattered was the ending: Independence! But the boilerplate became a creed, and America’s story is the story of that creed — those mere words — unfolding to its logical conclusion. That is what Lincoln did at Gettysburg when he reconceived the meaning of America, what Martin Luther King Jr. appealed to when he called on Americans to live up to their own story’s highest principles. A civilization is simply a story: the story the people tell themselves about themselves.
It seems axiomatic to me that whatever words can create, they can destroy. And ingratitude is the destroyer’s form. We teach children that the moral of the Goose that Lays the Golden Egg is the danger of greed. But the real moral of the story is ingratitude. A farmer finds an animal, which promises to make him richer than he ever imagined. But rather than nurture and protect this miracle, he resents it for not doing more. In one version, the farmer demands two golden eggs per day. When the goose politely demurs, he kills it out of a sense of entitlement — the opposite of gratitude.
The Miracle is our goose. And rather than be grateful for it, our schools, our culture, and many of our politicians say we should resent it for not doing more. Conservatism is a form of gratitude, because we conserve only what we are grateful for. Our society is talking itself out of gratitude for the Miracle and teaching our children resentment. Our culture affirms our feelings as the most authentic sources of truth when they are merely the expressions of instincts, and considers the Miracle a code word for white privilege, greed, and oppression.
This is corruption. And it is a choice. Collectively, we are embracing entitlement over gratitude. That is suicidal. I did not call my book “Decline of the West” or “Death of the West,” because suicide is a choice. We are not victims of cold immutable forces, or suffering from the loss of God’s favor. Nothing is foreordained. There’s no excuse for coasting on the right side of history, because there’s no such thing. Our words alone can save us. When a loved one is suicidal, what do you say to him? You tell him how much he has to live for, how much he should be grateful for. We are choosing to do otherwise.
“From whence shall we expect the approach of danger?” asked Abraham Lincoln. “Shall some trans-Atlantic military giant step the earth and crush us at a blow? Never. All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined . . . could not by force take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years. . . . If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”
It was true then and remains true today. We have a choice.
— This essay is adapted from Jonah Goldberg’s new book, Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics Is Destroying American Democracy.