After the relativists came the PC-mongers of the 1980s and 1990s, with their war on language, custom, humor, and identity. The road to serfdom is paved with good intentions, and Kimball takes a well-aimed crack at do-gooders, in a brave chapter titled “What’s Wrong with Benevolence,” which seeks to establish that, all too often, philanthropy is “less a virtue than an emotion,” and moreover one that can do incredible damage. He sees in much modern charity, especially when undertaken by governments and corporations at great distances rather than locally by directly concerned individuals, precisely that self-satisfied “telescopic philanthropy” denounced by Dickens in Bleak House, when Mrs. Jellyby practiced it on behalf of the people of Borrioboola-Gha on the banks of the Niger while her own feral children went around unfed and ill shod. Kimball sees in the general benevolence of Rousseau, Marx, and other citizens of the world a series of terrible dangers and provides with this book an important philosophical treatise against utopianism and social engineering.
The “Age of Amnesia” in the subtitle can hardly be denied. Although 90 percent of Ivy League freshmen know who Rosa Parks was, only 25 percent of them know who spoke of “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” Some 40 percent of high-school seniors are unable to say within half a century when the American Civil War was fought. Small wonder, therefore, that the Left can so routinely bend the past to its own purposes, attempting to equate pride in American exceptionalism with racism and exploitation. Thus Cecilia O’Leary of American University identifies American patriotism as a right-wing, militaristic, male, white, Anglo, and repressive force, and Richard Sennett of New York University denounces “the evil of a shared national identity” and describes the erosion of national sovereignty as “basically a positive thing.” Kimball denounces those who “look to the past only to corroborate their sense of superiority and self-satisfaction,” and he tells us who these people are.
Yet the book is uplifting, too. There are plenty of heroes, apostles of freedom such as Friedrich von Hayek, James Burnham, Leszek Kolakowski, and the passengers of United Airlines Flight 93 who attacked the 9/11 hijackers on the way to Washington, D.C. “As a result” of the latter act of heroism, writes Kimball in a typically arresting phrase, “the plane crashed on a remote Pennsylvania farm instead of on Pennsylvania Avenue. Who knows how many lives their sacrifice saved?” Kimball emphasizes the importance of cultural confidence, such as that exhibited by writers such as John Buchan, G. K. Chesterton, and Rudyard Kipling, and he analyzes and criticizes the malevolent and seductive blandishments of statist “democratic despotism.” He presents the Hayekian themes of limited government and individual liberty as an effective counter, and although President Obama himself is only glancingly referred to, the whole Obaman zeitgeist is firmly in Kimball’s firing line.
Kimball also mounts an effective, unapologetic defense of the values of the English-speaking peoples, again citing the work of Burnham and Kolakowski, a defense of the pragmatic tradition that he is proud to describe as “the bourgeois virtues” of thrift, trustworthiness, sobriety, and hard work, which to his mind have provided the most nurturing home for high-level cultural achievement and the development of genuine individuality. The greatest threat to this derives from the dependency culture that the Left sedulously injects into the American body politic, with all the infantilizing effects of which Hayek warned in his 1944 clarion call, The Road to Serfdom. The more the government takes into its domain, the less power and influence the individual has over his own existence, and the less the individual will produce of value. Kimball shows how Hayek’s thought makes as much sense in the cultural sphere as in the economic and political. With the coming presidential election fast shaping up to be the most unambiguous Hayekian-versus-Keynesian struggle for decades, with the Republicans just as consistently promoting Hayekian precepts for the economy as the Democrats are clinging onto Keynesian verities, Kimball’s book has powerful overtones for the November race.
Kimball quotes the great British writer John Buchan, who wrote in his memoir, Pilgrim’s Way: “The world must remain an oyster for youth to open. If not, youth will cease to be youth, and that will be the end of everything.” I can think of no better present for a young person today than a copy of The Fortunes of Permanence; for anyone wanting to try to make sense of a world gone awry — and looking for arguments to help set it back on its axis — this is a fine oyster to open.
– Mr. Roberts is the author most recently of The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War.