October 17, 2010
Why We Fight
November 2, 2010 will go down as the biggest repudiation of liberalism in our lifetime. As many as eighty Democrats may go down to defeat in the House of Representatives. But for what?
None of this will be due to the brilliance of conservative ideas. Most Americans don't care about ideas. Voters are turning away from liberal government because it seems that President Obama and the Democratic Congress have run the S.S. America onto the rocks.
Conservatives always knew this day would come: our faith requires it, and our conservative ideas predict it. Still, the debacle of Obamaism is shocking. Who knew that a cranky grassroots rebellion was possible in this surface-smooth media age?
In the next few years, conservatives will get a chance to reverse the mistakes of Obama. The new Congress can roll back spending; a new president can repeal ObamaCare and start to deal with the entitlement train wreck.
But is that all there is? Do we just fight for a modest roll-back of liberal folly? Surely we must reach higher.
Before Ronald Reagan ever ran for any political office, he called the American people to something higher in "The Speech."
You and I have a rendezvous with destiny.
We'll preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we'll sentence them to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness.
That was in 1964. Twenty-four years later, in his farewell address to the nation from the Oval Office, an avuncular President Reagan talked to Americans about the "shining city upon a hill":
And how stands the city on this winter night? More prosperous, more secure, and happier than it was eight years ago. But more than that: After two hundred years, two centuries, she still stands strong and true on the granite ridge, and her glow has held steady no matter what storm. And she's still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.
What is our rendezvous with destiny, our shining city upon a hill? What is it that animates us as we fight to save America from the squalid power politics of interest-group liberalism?
The First Conservative, Edmund Burke, defined the conservative vision for us 220 years ago. It is a trust, "an entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers, and to be transmitted to our posterity." We conservatives believe in society as a web of trust, a web that begins with those we love and extends to all those we serve, and beyond them to those "hurtling through the darkness" without even a hope of home.
This trust is not something that can be written out onto a tabula rasa by sophisters, economists, and calculators. It is not a government program or a three-thousand-page bill; it is something bigger than technical expertise or a government program. It is a social virtue; it describes the necessary culture of free men and women living in liberty.
Why do we fight? We fight for a culture of trust, in which ordinary people are connected by their actions and their characters into a vast social network of reciprocal and friendly relations. In this society of trust, ordinary people can live a companionable life of moral obligation and exchange, a life that seldom hits the wall of legal obligation and government compulsion. In Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity, Francis Fukuyama calls this "spontaneous sociability." Whatever you call it, it comes down to trust, service, love, exchange. These are the qualities of the conservative society to come.
Here is a report on how this culture of trust can actually work here in America. It is from Michael Novak in The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism. He is writing about a memoir written by his wife's ancestor, a preacher who journeyed westward from upstate New York in 1842 and became the first Baptist missionary in Iowa territory:
One of the most stunning features of his memoir is that nearly all the daily activities he reports were cooperative and fraternal. Families helped each other putting up homes and barns. Together they built churches, schools, and common civic buildings. They collaborated to build roads and bridges. They took pride in being free persons, independent, and self-reliant; but the texture of their lives was cooperative and fraternal.
What made this cooperative and fraternal society possible? Obviously, it had to be many things. But the unique characteristic of America is its Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture. That culture asserts that everyone stands before God as the sole judge of his or her life.
This idea of a direct relationship with God is a reckless notion that, anyone would think, had to be a recipe for atomism and anarchy. Instead, in America, it spawned a miracle. In liberating ourselves from the shackles of conformity and subjection to moral and political elites, we freed ourselves into something else: a free society of voluntary association and rapidly expanding trust. In the old country, you trusted people only as far as the limits of blood, kin, or village. But in the American civilization, we extend trust to the community of all those who can be trusted.
Here's another testimony to trust from the aftermath of a financial meltdown, the Crash of 1907. Banker J.P. Morgan is being interrogated on Capitol Hill about the "money trust," and staff counsel Samuel Untermyer is asking about credit and collateral. Credit is about character, Morgan insisted, not about collateral. Never mind if a borrower had tons of collateral in government bonds when he came to borrow money:
Mr. MORGAN. Because a man I do not trust could not get money from me on all the bonds in Christendom.Mr. UNTERMYER. That is the rule all over the world?Mr. MORGAN. I think that is the fundamental basis of business.
For some people, this culture of trust is a sham, a conjurer's trick. They know that spontaneous sociability is a delusion, that underneath all the cooperation of small-town America and imperial bankers is a fever swamp of injustice and marginalization that only a strong centralizing force directed by an educated elite can control and mitigate. You know who these people are. We call them liberals.
Our liberal friends are against moral freedom, for they wish to judge America. They are against spontaneous sociability, for they wish to rule America. They wage war on trust, for they wish to compel America. Why do they do this?
Let us give our liberal friends the benefit of the doubt. Back in the old days, an educated youth could have argued plausibly that the new democratic capitalism was a danger to society. Young Karl Marx, aged 30, and Friedrich Engels, 28, in 1848:
The bourgeoisie ... has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations ... In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.
The young Fabian, Sidney Webb, age 30, had a similar take in 1889:
The result of the industrial revolution ... was to leave all the new elements of society in a state of unrestrained license ... Women working half naked in the coal mines; young children dragging trucks all day ... these and other nameless iniquities will be found recorded as the results of freedom of contract and complete laissez faire in the impartial pages of successive [government] blue-book reports.
These young activists were telling us that you can't trust capitalists. The "invisible hand" of Adam Smith is a myth.
The issue is clear. If you believe that people can be trusted, then you think that most problems can be solved through peaceful resolution; you will vote for limited government. If you think that the untrustworthy people are going to take over, then you will want them restrained by government force.
The conservative culture of trust unites conservatives into a single big tent. Social conservatives believe that we should increase the bonds of trust between the sexes, in marriages and families. Economic conservatives believe we should increase trust in the economic sector and structure the economy to reward trustworthy people. National-security conservatives believe we should trust Americans more than thug dictators. Second-Amendment conservatives believe we should trust Americans with guns. Conservatives are united by our faith in trust.
The argument of the left, ever since Marx and Engels and Webb, is that you cannot trust society. You can trust only the state. You can't trust the mediating institutions between the individual and government. You can't trust families, for they are patriarchal. You can't trust businesses because they are exploiters. You can't trust churches because they are bigoted. But you can trust government, led by educated youth -- men like Joseph Stalin, seminarian; Fidel Castro, lawyer; Pol Pot, technical student.
The experiment of the last two centuries is now over, and the results are in. If you expand the zone of trust with economic freedom and limited government, you get prosperity and happiness.
But we also know what happens when you contract the zone of social trust by trusting in big government run by educated youth. Whenever peoples have lived for a considerable time under a strong centralizing government, the web of trust between people is frayed and broken. For centralizing government always declares war on spontaneous sociability and the mediating structures of trust and voluntary association. Just ask the Chinese and the Russians, ruled for centuries by centralizing bureaucracies.
The best recipe for a free and sociable society is a mixture of Protestant moral liberation and its high-trust social culture, as practiced in the 18th century by Britain and in the 19th century by the United States.
In the United States, we now suffer under a strong, centralizing government, and we have seen the old web of trust fray and disintegrate. Our centralizing rulers are, fortunately, not a clique of bureaucratic Mandarins or totalitarian Maoists. They are just liberals. They wanted to give the poor a helping hand. They wanted to help everyone with education, to give us access to health care, to provide old people with pensions, to relieve poverty in the sprawling cities. They just didn't believe that Americans could be trusted to do it on their own. So they built and directed a vast edifice of big government and enticed millions of people away from the American birthright of sociability into the dead end of dependency. This is why we fight.
Fifty years ago, President Eisenhower warned us against the danger of a centralization in a military-industrial complex, and our liberal friends have never forgotten his warning. Or have they? Today in the United States, according to usgovernmentspending.com, we have a health-industrial complex costing $1.1 trillion a year, a pension-industrial complex costing $1.0 trillion a year, an education-industrial complex costing $1.0 trillion a year, and a welfare-industrial complex costing $0.8 trillion a year. It's a pity that the pension-industrial complex has cheated a generation out of honest saving, that the health-industrial complex has made health care unaffordable, that the graduates of the education-industrial complex need remedial instruction at college, that the welfare-industrial complex has destroyed the low-income family. Other than that, the government-industrial complex works pretty well. The old military-industrial complex? It now costs $0.9 trillion a year.
Government is force, so the government-industrial complex necessarily socializes people into a culture of mistrust and compulsion, for you need compulsion only for people you do not trust. The private sector, on the other hand, socializes people into a culture of service. An entrepreneur proposes, and the customer disposes. Businesses compete to earn the trust of the consumer.
Between the conservative nexus of sociable trust and the liberal culture of compulsion is a great gulf. In the conservative narrative, society builds a culture of trust from the ground up, slowly persuading people of the benefits of a high-trust society and sanctioning the abusers of trust. In the liberal narrative, the only people to trust are the progressive educated elites, the ruling class directing a strong, centralized administrative state.
Today in America, the centralized administrative state wants to centralize and administer America's health care. Do liberals really understand what they are telling us with ObamaCare? They are saying that Americans cannot be trusted to obtain health care for themselves or produce it for others without minute supervision from liberal experts and activists. They are saying that Americans, known as the most charitable people in the world, cannot be trusted to share, out of their own earnings, a decent provision for those who cannot provide, or foolishly choose not to provide, for their own health care. They are saying that there is no alternative: Americans must be forced to do the right thing because Americans cannot be trusted. This is why we fight.
We fight against the dead hand of liberal political centralism, and we fight for the practical American culture of spontaneous sociability. Our faith is a new faith in a people freed from subjection to the liberal ruling class. It is still, as it ever was, a faith in freedom and an ennobling instinct for free and voluntary association. And that is why we fight.
But we must lift our eyes from practical reforms to the horizon and search for a new way to institutionalize our vision for America. The tools are at hand: the separation of powers doctrine as enshrined in our Constitution and extended in the Bill of Rights.
In The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, Michael Novak describes the United States as a society differentiated from the compact pre-industrial world into three equal and free sectors: political, economic, and moral/cultural. Each sector contributes to the whole, but none should rule over the others.
In the Bill of Rights, the founding fathers extended the separation of power principle from a mere separation of powers among the three branches of government. They declared a distance between the political sector and the moral-cultural sector: the separation of church and state. Now it is time to take another step in the separation of powers and create a distance between the political sector and the economic sector. The economy is the realm of wealth; government is the realm of power. Mix wealth and power, and they corrupt each other. It is time to demand the separation of economy and state.
We must create a Greater Separation of Powers to rule the relations between the great institutional sectors of society. The political sector is the realm of force, the moral/cultural sector the realm of persuasion, and the economic sector the realm of service. Collapse them into a totalitarian unity, and the result is misery. Free them, separate them, and limit their powers, and the result is happiness. With the powers of the great institutional sectors limited, the personal sector of face-to-face relations, the sector of trust, can flourish and expand. Here is an America for conservatives to love.
This American proposition, writes Francis Fukuyama, is "subversive," for it gives any single person, or a whole Tea Party, the authority to decide for herself that she lives under intolerable injustice, and can do something about it. To proud elites down the ages, this has seemed a recipe for anarchy. But that is not how it has played out in the United States of America, and that is not how it will work out in the new America. When we liberate Americans from their moral subjection to liberal shibboleth, we will free the nation into the fraternal arms of spontaneous sociability. And that is why we fight -- to renew our rendezvous with destiny, to show to each other that a free people deserves to show its goodness. It deserves the freedom to demonstrate the miracle of turning the water of moral independence into the wine of universal free community and trust.
But what of our liberal friends? For a century they have held themselves proudly above and apart from the rest of us, determined to update institutions ill-adapted to the modern age, embarrassed and ashamed of the great unwashed flyover country, the ordinary America of spontaneous sociability. Anticipating their humiliation in November, we conservatives could even now be planning to convert the liberal diversity training industry into a new school for spontaneous sociability, to teach those wayward liberal souls the error of their ways. But we cannot do that; we must not do that.
What we must do is welcome, with open arms, each and every liberal who experiences the epiphany that The American Thinker's own recovering liberal, Robin of Berkeley, experienced in the fall of 2008, when the election of Barack Obama changed her life. Recently she told us how liberalism had kept her in a kind of limbo, forever condemned to a life of guilt. It all began when her mother threatened her as a five-year-old: "If you keep doing things like that, I won't love you anymore." Robin's solution to this threat was to become a perfectionist, forever terrified of making a mistake. But then came the day when "[t]ruth came knocking on my door." Forgiveness for mistakes and bad behavior would be between her and God, for "in the end, it is only His judgment that matters." That is the Anglo-Saxon Protestant proposition: a direct relationship between you and God. No priests, no gatekeepers, no angry mothers, and especially no liberals in between.
Let us show our liberal friends true conservative magnanimity as they hurtle through the darkness towards home. Let us show them how to trust. Because the shining city on the hill belongs to liberals, too, and that is why we fight.