EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “news”letter, the G-File. Subscribe here to get the G-File delivered to your inbox on Fridays.
It’s not supposed to be like this.
I’m not just referring to the latest school shooting — itself a soul-deadening phrase: the latest school shooting.
I mean this whole mess. Bear with me.
We evolved to live in small bands of a dozen to a few dozen people. Our brains come pre-loaded with a numerical limit on the number of people we can really know (it’s called “Dunbar’s Number”). Fortunately, our brains are flexible and adaptive, which is why we’re not still eating grubs and tubers. We can, therefore, learn to live in communities larger than those typical of a wandering band of hunter-gatherers.
But there are limits. Rousseau was among the first moderns to articulate an “ideal” society — one that laid down the foundations for many totalitarian projects to follow. Nonetheless, he believed that his ideal society could only work in a relatively small society (i.e., roughly the size of his beloved Geneva).
The Founders, likewise, believed that size matters. They didn’t think freedom could work on a mass scale, run by a centralized government. So they created a system that was — to borrow a phrase — antifragile. It inverted the pyramid of power, delegating as much authority as possible to the people and the places where the people actually lived. Their constitutional framework was arguably the greatest melding of realism and idealism in all of human history. The Founders knew men weren’t angels, and so they set up a system that checked ambition with ambition.
But the Founders also understood that such a system couldn’t work unless the un-angelic people themselves were nonetheless reasonably virtuous. As George Washington argued, “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.”
Getting What We Deserve
People often ask me why I am so hostile to George Pataki, a perfectly typical, albeit gormless, hack. It all began with something he said when, as governor, he signed New York’s hate-crime law. “It is conceivable,” Pataki said with studied solemnity, “that if this law had been in effect 100 years ago, the greatest hate crime of all, the Holocaust, could have been avoided.”
If I were in a more jocular mood, I could riff on the resplendent asininity of this for the rest of this “news”letter. After all, I still chuckle — 18 years later — at the thought of Hermann Goering or Joseph Goebbels telling Hitler, “Mein Fuhrer, my apologies, but we cannot exterminate the Jews because the democratic government we overthrew passed a hate-crime law.”
But I bring this up for a more specific reason. When the people become capable of profound evil, the law alone is a flimsy barricade — a cardboard dam holding back the river. When the people go south, the law will go with them. The Constitution’s only binding power is the reverence we hold for it. The same principle holds for religion. As Chesterton says, “Blasphemy itself could not survive religion; if anyone doubts that let him try to blaspheme Odin.”
I need to get back on track. To be clear, I am not arguing or suggesting that the American people have lost all virtue, never mind that there’s a holocaust around the corner. What I am getting at is that George Washington’s argument works the other way around, too. When the “general Government” starts to degenerate into “a monarchy, an Oligarchy, an Aristocracy, or any despotic or oppressive form,” the virtues of the people degenerate as a result. As Joseph de Maistre said, “Every nation gets the government it deserves.”
We don’t have a monarchical, aristocratic, or despotic government — though there are aspects of our government that are far closer to such adjectives than many would like to admit. But we talk about it like we think it should be. In the wake of this horrific shooting in Florida, journalists and politicians are shouting demands at the federal government and the president of the United States that neither can achieve if they are to stay consistent with the Constitution.
“Get rid of the guns!” “Stop this from happening!” TV hosts scream, as the networks shove cameras in the faces of grieving mothers and fathers of children still in body bags, while crediting their utterly understandable cries of anguish as coherent public-policy programs. The assumption is that, if only the president’s heart were in the right place, these terrible things wouldn’t be happening. It reminds me of the old lament of the Jews harassed by the pogroms, “If only the Czar knew!”
The Right is not immune to this monarchical thinking.
In the debate over guns, I think the Right has the better arguments (which is not to say I agree with all of them). But the Right is not immune to this monarchical thinking. The Right has its own cult of the presidency, because Americans have a cult of the presidency. The president recently took credit for the decline in airplane crashes — all around the world — and few of the usual suspects offered even a chortle. How often do you hear that this is the “Trump economy”? As a political talking point, that’s hardly remarkable, since all presidents take credit for a good economy. But conservatives used to mock the notion that a massively diversified economy could be run from a desk in the Oval Office. Under Obama, airheads and poltroons talked of him as a “lightworker” and pledged allegiance to him. Under Trump, loyalists “jokingly” pine for him to be a “dictator,” and religious leaders celebrate his glandular authenticity, while sharing memes of Jesus guiding his pen-hand. Americans, it seems, still crave a king.
One of the things — really, the thing — that makes capitalism work is the division of labor. If we all churned our own butter or raised our own livestock, we’d have little time to do anything else. The problem is that we are not homo economicus. We do not restrict ourselves to the benefits of the division of labor for food and clothes, while reserving all other responsibilities to ourselves. As Albert Jay Nock put it (in what he called “Epstean’s Law”), “Man tends always to satisfy his needs and desires with the least possible exertion.”
We live in an age when we all too often want our local problems, even our personal problems, to be national problems because we think that the government in Washington is there to solve anything called a “national problem.” But the truth is that very few problems should be considered national problems because, among other reasons, most problems are in fact local ones and lend themselves almost exclusively to local solutions. David French makes this point quite well. If the government in Washington is ill-equipped or unable to stop a bad thing from happening, the response shouldn’t be to simply yell louder at it. The response should be, “Well, what can we do ourselves?”
This highlights the problem with capitalism. As Irving Kristol observed in one of his greatest works, “When Virtue Loses All Her Loveliness,” there is a difference between a “free society” and a “just” or “bourgeois” society. The Founders worked on the assumption that the people themselves would be the guardians of virtue, probity, norms, and even public safety in their own communities. And, as Kristol notes, for the first century or two of capitalism’s existence, it was largely synonymous with a just/bourgeois society.
But capitalism consistently divides labor into thinner and thinner slices, so that the habits of the heart that made capitalism work — thrift, industrious, decent manners — become less and less essential. In the process, virtue falls by the wayside, and we look to government or other sources of authority or simply the market to provide things we’ve ceased providing for ourselves, from parents who outsource moral education to schools, to college students who demand they be protected from scary ideas, to populists of the left and the right who demand that the government fix tectonic changes brought about by globalization and technology. I’m not saying people have become evil or even lazy, nor am I blaming the victims of horrendous crimes such as what we saw in Florida. I’m saying we have, as my friend David Bahnsen puts it in his new book, a “crisis of responsibility.” Everything must be easy. There needs to be an app for that, because I’m too damn busy.
And it is systemic. Many of our national legislators want to be pundits, decrying usurped powers that are wielded by the other branches of government, rather than legislating to stop it. Local politicians would rather pound the table about what the federal government should do to fix urgent problems — problems that they were elected to deal with — than fix the problems themselves. The whole framework created by the Founders was based on the assumption that our governing institutions would be jealous guardians of their power. They are now made up of people who are jealous guardians of their slots on Morning Joe or Fox and Friends.
The Founders envisioned a sprawling nation where most conversations were local in large part because all media were local.
Indeed, cable news and social media pour gasoline on the fire. The Founders envisioned a sprawling nation where most conversations were local in large part because all media were local. Today, there is literally a national conversation because technology allows us to have one, and it is garbage. It is garbage for precisely the reason Rousseau and the Founders would surmised. You cannot view a vast, sprawling, diverse, continental national such as ours as if it were a small community. But that’s what the “one-nation politics” fad does: It elevates every grievance and slight to a national shouting match. We get outraged by the lack of conformity of people who live thousands of miles away from us. As Megan McArdle has written, social media have turned the whole country into a nation of small-town gossips, prying and judging, clucking and tsk-tsking people they’ll never meet for not agreeing with them or because they’re not living the right way.
The Founders created Congress to represent the views and interests of local communities. Our representatives would sift through myriad conversations both literal and figurative (in the form of local newspapers, which were, as de Tocqueville observed, the backbone of “association,” i.e., community) searching for the most important and relevant conversations worthy of consideration on a national level. Congress was where the national conversation was supposed to take place. Now, the national conversation is a Hieronymus Bosch painting of a damn online comment section.
One last point: I am not arguing that we should do away with capitalism or that we should abandon the notion of a free society (though I do think it needs tweaking). I am arguing that our problems are both bottom-up and top-down. The worse one gets, the worse the other gets, because at the end of the day, de Maistre was at least half right: Every nation gets the government it deserves, but every government ultimately gets the people it deserves, too.
Various & Sundry
By the time this “news”cri de coeur comes out, the latest Remnant podcast will be out too. I talked to Bryan Caplan of George Mason University, who has a fascinating new book out: The Case against Education. I thought it was a great conversation, but something of a failure of a debate. Let me explain. There’s a running theme in Caplan’s work that bugs me. Oh, it’s all brilliant and infuriatingly supported by empirical research, damn him. But it still bugs me. He’s written three books: The Myth of the Rational Voter, Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, and The Case against Education. In each of them, Caplan basically makes the case that reason and persuasion don’t count for much. Voters don’t vote for strictly rational reasons, parents can’t do that much to change who their kids will become, and schools aren’t very effective at teaching things. I’m being unfairly glib, and I encourage you to read the books and listen to the podcast. But that’s the gist — and I hate it.
As the above “news”letter suggests, I’ve spent the last few years mired in a book about the glories of liberal democratic capitalism and the genius of the Founding, among other things. As I’ve been writing here for years, I think civilization takes an enormous amount of work. Politics for me depends, in the grandest sense, on the power of words and ideas to shape the world we live in. And what bugs me about Caplan’s argument is that it boils down to “Don’t sweat that stuff, everything’s largely on autopilot.” He did a very good job defending that position, and I’m walking around kicking the furniture (“I know!” — The Couch) muttering things I should have said. I think it makes for a good podcast, but I want a rematch.
Speaking of metaphorical furniture, I have exciting news .
Speaking of metaphorical furniture, I have exciting news (if you hadn’t heard). Thanks to the enormous generosity of my friend Cliff Asness, I now have an endowed chair at the American Enterprise Institute. I now hold the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty. “What is ‘applied liberty’?” you ask. Well, as the above “news”letter might suggest, I see it as the intersection of our lofty ideals of liberty and the practical reality of how we live in the world. Anyway, it’s a huge honor, and I’m grateful for the opportunity. I’m a little worried that the association will reflect poorly on Cliff. But to paraphrase the scorpion’s rejoinder to the frog, he knew what I was before he did this.
In other news, I now have a personal website, creatively titled JonahGoldberg.com. The immediate impetus for it was to help promote the book, so it will serve as a clearinghouse for information about the book tour, responses to reviews, etc. But it will also be the de facto website for the podcast and, well, not to get too technical, other stuff. Let me know what you think about it. I’ve already heard from lots of people that it needs more dog stuff. We’re working on it. Speaking of dog stuff#…#
Canine Update: Not too much to report. There’s been remarkably little drama — or at least new drama (even The Fair Jessica’s attempt to feed Zoë a baby carrot aroused a dainty disdain rather than a dramatic protest, and her attempt to bite the [other] hand that feeds her was playful). Crow-hatred is now simply part of the daily routine. Zoë got to chase some deer this morning, so she’s happy. And Pippa did her usual spanieling.
Pippa remains remarkably promiscuous with her tennis balls (perhaps because she thinks she is blessed). The other morning, we were doing a neighborhood walk (Zoë on leash, Pippa scrambling around chasing her ball), and Pippa approached no fewer than seven people and offered them the honor of throwing her slobbery tennis ball for her. Three people took my advice and kicked it. One person actually picked it up and threw it. She’s very sweet that way. Pippa really thinks everyone wants to join in on the fun, which may explain her other odd habit of running up to the front doors of people’s homes and waiting for someone to emerge to say, “Hi!” (The good cat, meanwhile, is still having hard time figuring out what the big deal is about tennis balls.) Anyway, lots of scritches and adventures and happy homecomings. Next week, I might have a better update because we’re taking them to the Eastern Shore for the weekend.
Oh, that reminds me. I may not be able to write a G-File next week because I will be spending most of my time in a recording studio, doing the read of Suicide of the West for the audiobook. (You can preorder that now, too.)
ICYMI . . .
And now, the weird stuff.