This earnest column by David Brooks convinces me that neither he nor the legions of other public intellectuals currently warning of the fracturing of the country really have any idea why this is happening right now.
In Brooks’s ideal society, as he explained in his influential 1997 article “A Return to National Greatness,” we should have a large and activist central state that controls national life and takes care of all needs and rules over a happy and unified people who take joy and pride in our civic institutions.
He hasn’t given up the dream, which accounts for his palpable shock at the frenzied tribalism in evidence during the controversy over a Supreme Court pick. “This is a complete pulverization of the actual individuals involved in this case – a retreat from complex particularity to simplistic group prejudice,” he writes. “The core problem behind all of this is a complete breakdown in the legitimacy of our public institutions.”
That sounds terrible but what is it that he wants? A big state plus civic unity. You can see from his column that he is completely mystified about why this is not happening. Indeed, he is panicked (and maybe he is right to be) about the sheer wickedness of the current moment in politics.
Why the Shock?
Here is what frustrates me about this perspective. It nowhere acknowledges that the current moment is precisely what liberalism (or libertarianism) predicted would happen if you grow the state beyond the most minimal functions pertaining only to a narrow range of particular crimes.
The liberal conviction from the last several hundred years is that freedom (not government) is the best guarantor of social and economic harmony. Frederic Bastiat wrote his last book with that title. “Liberty! Therein, in the last analysis, lies the source of harmony. Oppression! Therein lies the source of discord. The struggle between these two forces fills the annals of history.”
To be sure, Bastiat was no utopian. It is the social and economic planner who imagines some ideal state to bring about through force. He saw in the institutions of freedom the capacity for improvement. “Harmony does not consist in the complete absence of evil, but in its gradual reduction,” he wrote.
Lord Acton said the same. Power, he emphasized constantly, does not solve social problems; it leads to moral corruption, conflict, and violence.
By the end of his life, Ludwig von Mises had come to divide the political landscape between two groups. First, there are the harmonists who believe in leaving society alone to manage itself because exchange and association leads to ever more favorable, prosperous, and peaceful social outcomes. Second, there are the anti-harmonists who believe that “a community of interests exists only within the group among its members. The interests of each group and of each of its members are implacably opposed to those of all other groups and of each of their members.” Given this, “there should be perpetual war among various groups” with government there to foment the whole ghastly scene in the name of managing it, bringing justice, righting wrongs, making society great, or whatever slogan is popular among the right or the left.
The anti-harmonists, because of their dedication to coerced outcomes, end up causing society to behave precisely as they imagine it does and should behave. They end up creating the world of their fevered imaginations. The harmonists, in contrast, are left calmly to explain that there is another path, but people are less likely to listen in the midst of tribal wars in which the winning group takes all.
We Chose Wrongly
Over the last hundred years, we’ve chosen the path of building a total state (a state that knows no limits to its power), and thus did the prediction of the liberals become true, most obviously now in times of relative peace and prosperity (it takes war and depression to unite people in the way that Brooks imagines that they should be).
The violent hatreds, tribalisms, acts of revenge, and never-ending escalation of the war between left and right (and between races, religions, sexes, and classes) are exactly what you would expect to get when you attempt to organize life according to the zero-sum game that is politics.
Why is it that so few are willing to see what would strike any liberal from the past, or any educated libertarian of the present, as incredibly obvious?
Brooks is a smart guy. But he can’t bring himself to admit the core failing of modern political life: the attempt to achieve social harmony through political means. It can’t happen. It’s the wrong means to a good end. It’s wrong because behind the veil of good intentions of political organization is the only real tool that the state has, which is the threat of violence against person and property. That is not a basis for social harmony.
No Forced Unity
You can do easy mental experiments to discover this. Let’s say that the political elites announce that there would be only one religion, and one sect within that religion, that will prevail in all matters related to morality and theology. What do you suppose would follow such an announcement? More peace or more civic war?
The same pertains to every other aspect of life. What should be done with our private associations, our enterprising aspirations, the property that we own, our desire to travel, our desire to work with others in a business, our willingness to engage in exchange with others, our desire to speak and write what is on our mind, our affections and familial ambitions, our preferences over art and music, the personal preference for what we smoke and eat, and so on through the whole list of life activities?
Every attempt to manage these things from the top down fuels social division. There are literally millions of examples but the most insidious among them touch on the most complex areas of life such as gender relationships in professional life.
When in the 1990s the courts, regulators, and Congress decided to legislate against sexual harassment, it seemed like an innocuous affirmation of meritorious cultural change that was already taking place. Who could possibly object to such laws? All these years later, we see how this use of legislative force mutated into a brutal war in which each side claims the other is plotting the disempowerment of the other.
The anger is palpable on all sides, precisely what you expect when people literally believe they are fighting for their identity and lives. And, of course, in the end, well-intentioned laws are being used to manipulate political outcomes. All state interventions, even those that seem to push completely wonderful social results, end up becoming weapons – and weaponizing the people who use them to gain advantage over others.
Who benefits? Those who seek power over others – and that’s true whether the power seekers wave flags of the left or right.
The state is the wrong means to seek social justice. Take this path and you create discord.
Liberalism proposed a different idea. It said that everyone should be free to live as they want provided that didn’t interfere with others’ ability to do the same. It’s the law of equal freedom, enforced by decentralized institutions, the gradual evolution of social norms, and the courts of taste and manners. People are guaranteed rights to liberty, property, and associations of their own choosing; otherwise, the state does not interfere. This approach built civilization. It created the most harmonious societies in the history of humankind.
Brooks is at a loss about what to do about the civil wars of our time, and pathetically ends up suggesting small group seminars in which we talk amongst ourselves so we gain greater understanding.
The real answer is to live and let live and embrace the kind of legal order that instantiates that principle. It’s the only path to the harmony that he and so many others seek. The alternative is to keep tearing each other apart in a great struggle to control the whole.