The G-File

Culture

A Free People Must Be Virtuous

From the cover of Why Liberalism Failed, by Patrick Deneen (Yale University Press)
True liberty comes with obligations.

Dear Reader (Even those of you who didn’t seem to notice or care that I failed to file this “news”letter on Friday),

So I’m sitting here at Gate C6 at O’Hare waiting for my flight home. I am weary, pressed for time, in desperate need of a shower, and filled with a great sense of dread for the work ahead of me, sort of like the stripper with an hour left on the clock realizing that Eddy “Sweaty Sponge” Spaluko just walked in from his job draining Porta-Potties.

Meanwhile, a few minutes ago (which would actually make it erstwhile), I saw a man eating a pre-made salad — no doubt put together in some giant salad sweatshop outside Cicero, Ill. He dropped a crouton, covered in so much dressing it looked like some strange sea creature that exudes creamy ranch as a defense mechanism against predators.

When the crouton hit the blue airport carpeting, time slowed to a crawl, the background sounds of a busy airport vanishing as if the Almighty Himself had hit the mute button. The man picked it up barehanded, unconcerned by the squid-ink defenses of this soaked bread product. He looked around, mouthed something I can only assume was a silent prayer to the god of the Five Second Rule, and slyly popped it into his mouth.

In my mind’s eye, I pointed at him like I was Donald Sutherland at the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers but shouted, “Noooooooo!” like Bruce Campbell at the end of Evil Dead 2.

In reality, I just sat there (here actually) and stared. I kept staring, even as he walked out of my field of vision, wandering off to some future where many a soggy floor-nugget repast awaited him. Perhaps it was the deep contrast between someone inclined to both eat sensibly — a salad! — and insensibly: Every strand of airport carpet lint is a feudal city state inhabited by hydrothermal worms, and ranch dressing is known to cause severe cases of worm-gigantism in them.

Perhaps it was because I am so overwhelmed with weltschmerz that I could find myself day-dreaming even as a ranch-dressing metamorphic hydrothermal worm ate my foot.

But, whatever the reason, I just sat here, numb to the horror.

Comfortably Numb

Numb is a funny word — and not just when the “b” isn’t silent as when spoken by Mushmouth in Fat Albert. Its original meaning is “taken” or “seized” from the Old English niman: “to take, catch, graspin the way one is taken by palsy, seized by paralysis or shock, or, especially, overcome with cold. What’s interesting about this is that a loss of feeling wasn’t central to the word. Rather, it’s the sense that some powerful affliction takes over you and, I presume, renders you indifferent to other sensations or feelings. As when you feel so cold that you grow numb — and I assume that’s where the modern meaning comes from.

One of the oldest critiques of modernity is the claim that it breeds a kind of numbness of the soul. We become seized or grasped by the demands of the disenchanted modern world, and we in turn become deadened to the important things that give life meaning.

That’s essentially the point of Patrick Deneen’s book Why Liberalism Failed. For Deneen, this condition is an inevitable product of liberalism — and here he and I mean the liberalism birthed from Locke and Hobbes, Hume and Bacon (mmmm Bacon). But for Deneen, it’s also the liberalism of Rousseau and Dewey. He believes the political arguments between left and right these last 500 years are far narrower than most of us think. What he calls “progressive liberalism” and “conservative liberalism” are both at the end of day poisonous fruits from the same tree:

The only path to liberation from the inevitabilities and ungovernable forces that liberalism imposes is liberation from liberalism itself. Both main political options of our age must be understood as different sides of the same counterfeit coin.

I think this is profoundly wrong. But this is not to say that I think Deneen’s book is profoundly wrong. In a panel on Thursday night, I compared Why Liberalism Failed to The Road to Serfdom — a deeply valuable and prophetic book, which detractors often mock because Hayek’s prophecy turned out not to be true (yet). But prophecies are not scientific predictions; they are warnings. And when a people heed a prophecy, the prophet’s cataclysm is avoided.

Prophets and Losses

I want to write a longer essay on all of this, so I won’t dwell on Deneen’s argument here. Instead I want to dwell, briefly, on what I think Deneen gets right: the prophetic part. Like a biblical prophet, he surveys American society and catalogs the numbness of it all. People are seized, grasped, taken by a spirit of a distorted, selfish individualism that expresses itself as the satisfaction of appetite and the desire for status, and in the process, they are growing numb to the real sources of human flourishing.

At the end of the day, happiness is derived from love — love for others and others’ love for you. When I say “love” I do not mean simply romantic love, though that is obviously one of the greatest wellsprings of true happiness. I mean the love one feels from friends, and the love for places and things that brings people together for shared purpose.

Deneen chronicles how individualism was once understood as both the culmination of, and dependent on, virtue. The law was conceived of as a device, a technology, for making the virtuous path easier. But it was always understood that liberty comes with obligations. As the line goes in “America the Beautiful,” Confirm thy soul in self-control, Thy liberty in law.

This idea, which I write about at length in my book, recognized that the great enemy of virtue and individualism rightly understood is human nature itself. Classical liberalism is very different from classical or pagan libertinism. Adam Smith and John Locke never wrote anything like, “If it feels good, do it.” This is why I placed so much importance in my book on the idea of “God-fearing.” A free society, in which people act as if God is always judging them, will look very different from a free society in which the only god you care about is your own gut.

When you are your own priest, it’s always easier to get a dispensation for whatever is you want to do.

This is one reason why I do not see the “progressive liberalism” of the romantics — who glorified the primacy of feelings — or of the more modern pragmatic philosophers such as Dewey — who heaped scorn on all metaphysical, cultural, or traditional constraints on egoistic reason — as part of the same project as classical liberals.

In fairness to Deneen, he concedes that the classical liberals would never have thought that the “If it feels good, do it” mantra was part of their project either. He just argues that it was inevitable that one would flow from the other.

And I think that’s wrong. Indeed, we both agree that at least one solution to our problems is to foster more localism (and I gather all of this is in Ben Sasse’s new book, which for some reason I haven’t seen yet. If only I knew someone over there).

The modern doctrines of diversity and multiculturalism are a kind of homogenizing totalitarianism. Its acolytes want every institution to be filled with people who look different but think alike. What our society needs is not more “diversity” of this sort but more variety. Different communities and institutions need to be able live differently, because it is only with this kind of variety that a diverse people can find places where they all feel at home and where they can all find a kind of meaning that suits them as individuals.

To put it in the language of economics, institutions and communities need to be able to exploit their comparative advantages. It’s not just that the Marine Corps demands more from its members than the Peace Corps; it’s that the Marines demand different things. For some people, being a Marine would be a kind of living Hell; for others it is a reason to live. That’s what the individual pursuit of happiness means.

One of the great things about liberalism is that it allows for more paths for just that pursuit. In tribal society, there was little to no division of labor beyond what was rooted in age and sex. In feudal monarchies and modern totalitarianisms alike, there is division of labor, but it is imposed on people by rulers: “You will be a soldier.” “You will be a fry cook.” “You were born to be a slave or a serf.” In a free society, you have choice. It’s not perfect: You can’t choose to be a Marine if you do not meet the requirements, but you are free to try. And it is precisely those requirements that make the pursuit desirable. Not all people want to strive, but all people who’ve succeeded in life recognize that the striving was what made the success precious.

Arbeit Macht Tugendhaft

The new socialists insist that capitalism is not that different from authoritarian or totalitarian regimes because it makes us work. “The socialist argument against capitalism isn’t that it makes us poor,” writes Corey Robin. “It’s that it makes us unfree.”

When my well-being depends upon your whim, when the basic needs of life compel submission to the market and subjugation at work, we live not in freedom but in domination. Socialists want to end that domination: to establish freedom from rule by the boss, from the need to smile for the sake of a sale, from the obligation to sell for the sake of survival.

There are two major problems with this view. The first is that there has never been a society in all of human history where the average person did not have to work. Sure, some crapulent prince could lay around all day and do nothing, but everyone else had to till the soil or pound the anvil or carry a spear.

Second, work is good. Work is virtuous and inculcates virtue. Work gives people a sense of meaning and of being needed. Obviously, not everyone feels such satisfaction in the job they have now, but that dissatisfaction is precisely the motivation people need to find the job that might provide it. That motivation inspires virtue, too.

Some people work just to make the money to support the other things in their life that provide meaning, be it a family or a cause or a hobby that may seem silly to you or me but is central to their individual pursuit of happiness. Some people don’t work for money at all. Priests, stay-at-home parents, and volunteers in a thousand different institutions aren’t pursuing wealth; they are pursuing meaning through love and love through meaning.

The socialists are romantics in that they want to curate their lives entirely based on their own feelings. Marx saw the division of labor required by a free society as a form of slavery that put each laborer in specific role. “Each man,” he writes, “has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood.”

Marx imagined a utopia at the end of history where each individual could do whatever he pleased, because “the society” controlled the means of production. Thus Communism “makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.”

The first obvious problem is that this is batshit crazy. Who in this “society” is baking the bread — when everyone wants to fish? Collective ownership of the means of production must give power to someone in order to make sure people can eat. And that someone will invariably abuse his power:

The real problem, however, with this vision is that it gets it exactly backward. The only society in which it is remotely possible for people to design their lives in the manner Marx fantasizes is one that is incredibly rich and incredibly free. We are nowhere near there yet, but it’s worth pointing out that if you plucked any laborer from another era and toured him or her around America today, they’d think that we were remarkably close.

What I like about Deneen’s argument is that he recognizes this, and he finds it wanting. It’s easier than it has ever been to imagine a Jetsons or Westworld–like society where robots do all of the work for us, and we are “free” to indulge our wants and desires on a whim. But just as that kind of world is coming into view, so is the realization that it might not make us happy. Because a world without necessity is a world without striving. A world where there is no limit on our personal appetites is a world where virtue is too hard and other people are too much work. Why buy the cow when you can get the sex robot for free?

Various & Sundry

My apologies for the tardiness of this “news”letter. Last week’s schedule was beyond brutal. I think it’s the first week in over a decade when I couldn’t even post to the Corner. My travel schedule isn’t a walk in the park yet, but I promise to be a bit more regular going forward.

Canine Update: The celebrity of Zoë and Pippa continues to grow. When I got to my hotel at Notre Dame the other night, there were two goody bags in my room. Much to my chagrin, neither contained brown liquor, but one contained presents for Zoë and Pippa, who could not attend the conference, alas. One of the great things about dogs is that they are not plagued by the vices of modernity. Their bond with humans is literally prehistoric, and they still value the things that bring true happiness: friendship, work, and the simpler pleasures. So, I’m happy to tell you that they do not care one whit that they are canine celebrities (Zoë doesn’t even think it’s a big deal she can walk on water). Indeed, while I was finishing this “news”letter, Pippa was doing everything she could to prevent its completion. Still, I suspect the cats wouldn’t mind more public adulation.

ICYMI . . .

Last week’s G-File

Our politics will get uglier than the Kavanaugh fight

The latest Remnant

Nikki Haley’s excellent timing

And now, the weird stuff.

Debby’s Friday links

Debby’s Wednesday links

Debby’s Monday links

NSFW: Neutron star collision

Liam Neeson’s horse friend

When dinosaurs roamed New Mexico

What would happen if you vaped Venom goo?

Animals love the suburbs

Corgis!

A friend of Pippa’s?

First they came for the squirrels . . .

CPR Spotify playlist

The oldest shipwreck in Lake Erie?

The Butlerian Jihad must begin before it’s too late

Life imitates The Prisoner?

Jonah Goldberg — Jonah Goldberg holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute and is a senior editor of National Review. His new book, The Suicide of The West, is on sale now.

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