Jonah Goldberg’s newest book, “Suicide of the West,” has faced some serious criticism from conservatives in the last month. Conservatism is at its strongest when we are having substantive, lively, and civil debate. So in that spirit I’m going to argue that his book easily handles these criticisms.
The most substantive critique from a purely philosophical perspective originated with David Brooks in his New York Times review, but it was given considerably sharper teeth by Nathanael Blake here at The Federalist. This I will call the anti-Lockian critique.
For both Brooks and Blake it essentially came down to this: Edmund Burke is better than John Locke. That’s a hyper gloss, but ultimately what they both said. Alas: virtually no one outside of political philosophy knows who Burke is. I have two degrees in analytic philosophy, which is very isolated from politics, and I had never heard of him until relatively recently. This is similar to the spaces Thomas Reid and Emmanuel Kant occupy in the history of philosophy.
If you’ve ever heard of Reid, then you get a nerdy gold star, because he was mostly forgotten until recently. But he was a great philosopher. He took over Adam Smith’s professorship at the University of Glasgow and founded one of the most influential schools of thought during the Scottish Enlightenment. He was a ferocious contemporary critic of David Hume, and most philosophers today are far more inclined towards Reid’s conclusions than they are to Hume’s.
Conversely, Kant destroyed any chance modern philosophy had of recovering sanity by agreeing with some of Hume’s most ludicrous conclusions, yet he is remembered as a monumental philosopher while Reid is obscure. Thus Goldberg used Locke instead of Burke because Burke will never occupy the place Locke does in the story of Goldberg’s Miracle of liberal democratic capitalism. This isn’t based on merit, but myth.
Goldberg writes: “most civilizational creation stories are just that: stories. That doesn’t mean they are untrue. But the truth’s significance is on a separate track from the significance of the story itself. It would be fair to say that John Locke was a storyteller who, more than anyone, created the Miracle. But a more accurate way of saying it would be ‘the story we tell about Locke’ helped create the Miracle.”
At one point he credits Locke’s primary contribution as simply writing down some of the cultural advancements that took place in the thousand years preceding him. In other words, Goldberg is using Locke differently from the way one would use Burke because he simply isn’t part of the overarching myth of the Miracle of democratic capitalism. Locke codified aspects of the Miracle. When you also consider that Burke’s work isn’t really possible without Locke, the criticism makes even less sense.
Goldberg’s Argument Is Indeed Influenced By Burke
Jonah’s outlook is so Burkian that he occasionally calls himself a Whig. Burke is in this book, just not in the same way Locke is. To be fair, this isn’t very overt in the text, so Blake isn’t entirely unjustified when he writes: “Locke’s theories of selfish individualism make the family into a temporary contract for personal satisfaction, with the only natural constraint being that obligations to children must be honored.”
This is of course intended as a criticism of Goldberg’s supposed reliance upon Locke. Clear or not, Goldberg is rejecting this part of Locke when he writes:
Politicians delight in likening the country to a family. This is a dangerous analogy. Welfare programs—including numerous middle-class entitlements—are justified on the grounds that we all belong to the same American family, families take care of their own, and in the family there is no shame in asking for help. The problem here is twofold. Anyone who has asked a family member—particularly the wrong family member—for money knows that shame often plays a big role in the experience, particularly if you ask more than once. Family generosity has its limits, and it comes with strings attached. This is because generosity is different from entitlement, and familial assistance brings with it complex forms of reciprocity, guilt, expectations, etc. My brother, Josh, was plagued by addiction. My parents aided him many times before he died. All of their help—financial, emotional, and every other kind imaginable—came with conditions, lectures, hugs, tears, guilt, encouragement, and ultimatums. The government cannot play that role. None of these psychological factors is at work with a government check. Can a bureaucrat call you at ten o’clock at night, like your uncle Irving, and hock you about the money you owe him?
Following Friedrich Hayek, Goldberg has consistently said that treating the state like a family leads to tyranny. He has also consistently said the reverse: “Treating your family like a contractual society destroys the family.” Locke is never the end of any discussion over classical liberalism. He is merely the beginning, and beginnings always have problems.
Goldberg Does Treat Liberalism’s Contradictions
The second critique comes from John Daniel Davidson, also in these pages. I will call it the inherent contradictions of liberalism (not progressivism but capital-L Liberalism). He writes: “[Goldberg] does not ask whether there might be some contradictions at the heart of the liberal order, whether it might contain within it the seeds of its undoing. Instead, Goldberg makes his stand on rather narrow grounds. He posits that the Enlightenment Miracle can be defended in purely secular, utilitarian terms, which he supposes are the only terms skeptics of liberal democratic capitalism will accept.”
It is simply false that Goldberg doesn’t deal with the well-known contradictions of liberal capitalist society. He writes:
It is my argument that capitalism and liberal democracy are unnatural. We stumbled into them in a process of trial and error but also blind luck, contingency, and happenstance a blink of an eye ago. The market system depends on bourgeois values, i.e., principles, ideas, habits, and sentiments that it did not create and cannot restore once lost. These values can only be transmitted two ways: showing and telling. That is to say by modeling right behaviors and instructing people through words and images what right behavior looks like.
What Goldberg calls the Miracle, Os Guinness called the Golden Triangle of Freedom: faith, freedom, and virtue. Goldberg doesn’t use this concept, but it allows me to briefly make clear what is going on.
Each side of the triangle requires the others to flourish, and they are mutually reinforcing. Freedom, the totem of a liberal society, is the only part of the triangle that can destroy the Miracle. This is Whiggishness through and through: Capitalism eats itself without self-restraint. Self-restraint is impossible without virtue, and virtue is impossible without faith. So the essence of self-restraint comes from the choice to reinforce faith and virtue. When faith and virtue are strong, our free choices will be good choices.
This is why Goldberg chose to call his book “Suicide.” Echoing Abraham Lincoln, he says the only thing that can destroy America is death by suicide—by choice. Unfortunately, Davidson takes this naively. His claim that the death of the West is a natural consequence is itself the suicide Goldberg is warning against.
We have chosen as a society to focus on the capitalist and liberal aspects, but these things cannot flourish without faith and virtue. Lacking them is a death by a thousand cuts, a thousand bad decisions. It’s not a bullet to the brain, but from thousands of slowly bleeding wrists.
Goldberg writes that “Few actually hate the traditional nuclear family or the role it plays. But many are indifferent to it. And indifference alone is enough to invite the rust of human nature back in.” Human nature is the problem. Goldberg is very clear on that point. Holding back human nature requires faith and virtue.
Rust never sleeps, and neither does human nature. We must always be choosing to keep it at bay, always choosing to refresh ourselves, our loved ones, and our communities. This is virtuous federalism.
‘Suicide of the West’ Isn’t for Believers, But Skeptics
I agree with Davidson that when Yuval Levin wrote “More than any book published so far in this century, it deserves to be called a conservative classic,” he was a bit over his skis. “Suicide of the West” is best understood as an apologetic to persuade non-conservatives that there is something great here to conserve.
Otherwise, why would the opening line of the book be “There is no god in this book”? Of course not all conservatives are religious, but most non-conservatives are wary of religious arguments for conservatism because they often reek of illiberal-ism. Goldberg is certainly not naive about the role religion plays in the “miracle” of western classical liberalism.
If someone comes to this book looking for every part and parcel of a robust conservative worldview, he will find it lacking. This seems to be intentional. We live in the age of the nones, after all. If any people need persuading that we should try to conserve the gift of American freedom, it is probably them.
It’s also hard to see why Davidson has a problem defending the “Enlightenment Miracle…in purely secular, utilitarian terms.” The people still actively involved in the Tocquevillian project of virtuous communitarian freedom, like Davidson and Goldberg, are not the problem. We “happy few,” the ideological conservatives, are not the ones slitting our wrists. We can’t use faith or virtue to persuade those who are skeptical of such things.
Reasoning with someone who is attempting suicide isn’t a rational process. It is an emotional one. We need them to feel gratitude for the gift of the Miracle in terms that they understand.