Trouble in Paradise
I know many of you are on the Symposium mailing list, but I want this newsletter to be a hub that directs you to everything I'm doing out in the wider debate, so let me send a few links to some particularly interesting items.
See a podcast with Shikha Dalmia about the mutation and evolution of dictatorship after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and how it has morphed into a new form of authoritarianism that threatens to take hold even in the United States. The interview turns out to be partly about a sort of crisis of faith among those who had found a home among the broad "right" of American politics and are now prompted to wonder how much of what our colleagues on the right said and thought was really a lie.
This turns into a friendly disagreement between the two of us about how to figure out whether the left or right is the biggest threat to liberty right now. The real problem, of course, is that we even have to ask that question.
And just to show that I'm not taking my eye off the ball when it comes to the left, I recommend a piece I wrote for Symposium about the closing of the academic mind, three and a half decades after Allan Bloom warned us about it. The central idea is this.
"Those engaged in what passes for a 'culture war' these days probably never knew, or don't remember, the earlier culture war that was fought—and, in retrospect, lost—in my youth. But that old war is the hidden force beneath everything that's happening today, and we're still experiencing its consequences.
"I remember this previous culture war well because I arrived as a freshman at the University of Chicago in 1987, in the wake of Allan Bloom's unlikely blockbuster The Closing of the American Mind. Bloom argued in defense of the university's Great Books approach to education, arguing that the rise of relativism and what we would soon begin to call 'Political Correctness' was undermining students' ability to understand and engage with big ideas, rendering them shallow and conformist....
"There was a great deal I disagreed with in Bloom's analysis.... Yet unlike today's Trump-era nationalists, who have given up the contest of ideas, the Bloom-era conservatives put the 'culture' into the culture war. They wanted us to read Plato to own the libs. Or rather, the purpose was not to own the libs at all, but to expand our minds. Thinking well is the best revenge."
Also, I just had a new piece go up at Discourse, where I am becoming something of a regular (though I'm still writing for The Bulwark, too, most recently about our "live and let die" pandemic). At Discourse, I make the case against the "public good".
I start with an issue previously raised at Symposium with Sam Hammond. As you may recall, he is an advocate for the free-market welfare state, and if you add that together with freedom of speech, you would have an agenda that is not only widely popular, but has been the actual status quo of American politics for many decades now. When I talked with him, Hammond lamented the way in which our politics is fractured in battles between ideological extremes, preventing people from reaching an amicable consensus around his position.
But that raises the question: Why aren't we all in agreement? I've been wanting to write more about that, and this piece in Discourse spells out my own view. Here's how I state the paradox.
"On the main substance of what our government does, though, a strong and seemingly durable consensus is reflected in our actual policy decisions. A liberal, free-market welfare state is the system we actually have, and have had for a long time. But if that's the case, one would think that within this general consensus, disagreements about implementation could be viewed as mere pragmatic differences to be settled by reasoned debate, or at least as issues on which we can make temporary compromises to be revisited later, given that everyone is on the same page.
"So why aren't we living in a new Era of Good Feelings? Why do we fight so bitterly and constantly about politics? Why is there trouble in paradise?"
Here is my answer:
"[T]he main driver of the acrimony seems to be the fear that the slightest compromise, the slightest move in one direction or another within the broad consensus, is the beginning of a process that will go all the way to the opposite direction....
"This is the point at which a centrist would normally exhort us to put aside this phantom fear and work together on reasonable compromises. But what if this fear is not a phantom? For example, many who are generally pro-abortion rights would be willing to concede to some limits on late-term abortions, but they know that this would then be used as a precedent for imposing limits earlier and earlier, until we get policies like the latest Texas law, which imposes a limit so early that it effectively bans abortion.
"Similarly, there is the fear that 'emergency' stimulus spending in response to the pandemic will usher in a permanent multitrillion-dollar increase in government spending, and that a 'temporary' monthly child tax credit payment will inevitably become a permanent program, which will then be treated as a trial run for universal basic income—which takes the welfare state beyond a mere safety net and turns it into a universal entitlement for some to live off the labor of others....
"So the bitter conflict of our politics is not, in fact, an illusion. What seems like it ought to be a stable and placid consensus looks more like a precarious equilibrium between opposing forces that are far outside that consensus."
But I end up arguing that the problem is actually too much agreement on one fundamental issue.
"Oddly, both ends of the political spectrum claim the same underlying principle. If there is one true ideological consensus in today's politics, it is that the freedom and well-being of the individual should be sacrificed for 'the public good.' You will hear it as much from today's nationalist conservatives, some of whom are trying to rebrand themselves as 'common good' conservatives, as from the left.
"But rather than being a source of unity, this notion of the public good is an engine of division. We fight so desperately about politics because most people accept that individual rights should be sacrificed for the public good, but they inevitably disagree on what the public good is, who represents 'the public,' and who and what should be sacrificed."
The concept of the "public good" or "common good" is a slippery one, because it has two variants: one individualist and one collectivist. One version of the "common good" simply refers to the good we all have in common as individuals, such as national defense, or protection against crime. The other refers to the alleged good of an abstract collective, "the public," to be pursued at the expense of its actual, individual members.
The way the term has been use for at least the past 100 year is as a mechanism to substitute the second meaning for the first, which is why it serves as the fundamental engine driving our political conflicts.