The tyranny of unity

Jonah Goldberg:

I just caught my friend and colleague David French on MSNBC defending Karen Pence and the Christian school she’s going to teach at. I love listening to David defend Christian teachings in the MSM because he manages to be simultaneously unapologetic about his apologetics and wholly decent and un-scolding in the process.

Anyway, one of the points David made is right in my wheelhouse: He wants there to be as much freedom as possible for different schools and other institutions to teach their faith. If you’ve read or listened to me rant about federalism and civil society you know how dorkily passionate I am about this topic.

And that put me in mind to a question I got from an academic from a religious school last weekend when I was speaking at a conference for AEI’s Values and Capitalism program. After my usual rant about federalism and the importance of civil society, this guy asked me what’s wrong with First Things editor Rusty Reno’s calls for rethinking the Founding and the Enlightenment in pursuit of some new kind of Catholic-informed, New Deal-style project of national solidarity.

And that reminded me that Rusty has returned, like a dog to his vomit, to his attacks on me. If you recall, Rusty wrote a dumb review of my book a while back which began with the declaration: “Jonah Goldberg exemplifies the decadence and dysfunction of today’s public discourse.” For reasons I explained here, I thought this was impressively stupid, revealing the decadence and dysfunction in Reno’s Rusty-thinking.

In his latest effort, he puts the decadence and dysfunction on display yet again. But he also says some interesting things, and if you’ll forgive the self-congratulatory tone, they’re interesting because they track an argument I make at great length in my book. He argues that elites haven’t held up their end with regard to the rest of America. This is not a new argument, of course. It can be traced from Joseph Schumpeter to James Burnham to Irving Kristol and Christopher Lasch to Charles Murray in his prophetic Coming Apart.

As I discussed here last week in the context of Tucker Carlson’s jeremiad, I have no problem criticizing elites, but I think people are focusing mostly on the wrong elites.

My disagreement with Reno — aside from all the snide nonsense and bad faith — is the same problem I have with all of these arguments for centralizing power in Washington to “bring the country together” or some similar treacle.

Which brings me back to David French’s comments and Reno’s little project.

There’s an old joke about how the best form of government is the “good Czar.” The problem is that if you create a system dependent on the wisdom of a good Czar, you leave society defenseless against the rise to power of a bad Czar.

This insight, perhaps more than any other, is at the heart of the American political system envisioned by the founders. If men were angels, we wouldn’t need government, and if you could guarantee that every Czar is an angel, you wouldn’t need democracy, checks and balances, or divided government of any kind, either.

National solidarity is awesome when it’s on your terms. It’s only when people you don’t like get to define what constitutes national solidarity — which is synonymous with some notion of “national purpose” — that its proponents suddenly realize the problems. Then, when the people who say that “there’s no such thing as someone else’s child” or think that the Knights of Columbus is an ersatz hate group come into power, they’re suddenly like Colonel Nicholson in The Bridge Over the River Kwai asking, “My God, what have I done?”

The founders were acutely aware of this, which is why they opposed an established church like the Church of England. They saw how minority faiths had been persecuted in the name of national solidarity. The exhaustion after the religious wars of Europe minted the right to be wrong in the eyes of the majority or the state. In other words, they championed pluralism. As Ben Sasse writes in Them, we should all see ourselves as members of minorities.

Madison encouraged everyone to conceive of themselves as creedal minorities.

Assume that if you believe anything important or hold anything dear, it will not always align with majority opinion. Wise republicans (small-“r” republicans) — by which he meant all citizens of this new experiment in liberty, who had just observed a century-plus of religious war in Europe — should be aiming to preserve space for peaceful argument and thoughtful dissent. Government isn’t in the business of setting down ultimate truths. It doesn’t decide who’s saved and who’s damned. Government is merely a tool to preserve order, to preserve space for free minds to wrestle with the big questions. Government is not the center of life but the framework that enables rich lives to be lived in the true centers of freedom and love: houses and communities.

Reread George Washington’s letter to the Hebrew Congregation at Newport:

It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

The founders, especially James Madison, understood that the kind of national solidarity Reno desires and Rousseau celebrated is not scalable for a large, diverse, ultimately continent-spanning nation — at least not while preserving liberty. Even Rousseau thought his (largely totalitarian) conception of the General Will could not work on a polity larger than his beloved Geneva.

The way to prevent tyrannical invasions into the liberties of others was to divide power, not just between the three branches of government, but between the central government and the states and smaller jurisdictions. Each state has divided government, as do most cities and even towns and counties. And it’s not just state power. Institutions, starting with organized religion, must be given substantial immunity to interference by the state – at any level.

Divide power and then divide it again and again, and you prevent factions from grabbing power and imposing their will on the whole. As Madison writes in Federalist No. 51: “Extend the sphere and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength and to act in unison with each other.”

Delaware’s John Dickinson put it well at the Constitutional Convention: “Let our government be like that of the solar system. Let the general government be like the sun and the states the planets, repelled yet attracted, and the whole moving regularly and harmoniously in their several orbits.”

This idea, which evolved organically and slowly out of English culture, became a philosophical program (See Hume’s Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth) and ultimately a “new political science.”

But don’t tell that to Reno. He ridiculously thinks he’s caught me in a great contradiction by celebrating Hayekian trial and error while heaping scorn on the “Bold persistent experimentation” of the New Deal. He writes:

But wait a minute. By Goldberg’s account, we’ve gotten to the Miracle by trial and error. It’s taken thousands of generations of experimentation. Thus, the Miracle, too, has been arrived at by “the very definition of the authoritarian method.” In other words, the liberal miracle is in the upshot of a crypto-fascist approach. This explains why Suicide of the West is full of denunciations of those who disagree with Goldberg. That’s what ideological authoritarians do. They don’t argue with reason and decency. They pillory, ridicule, and smear.

This is preposterous. The New Dealers wanted to crush the normal divisions of power (and had considerable success). Planners like Rex Tugwell thought they were smarter than the market and could set the prices for everything from Washington. They believed individuals could have enough knowledge to plan other peoples’ lives better than they could.

You know who else believed that? Fighting Bob La Follette and his progressives.

That’s not bottom-up-trial and error from the little platoons of society (nor is it Catholic subsidiarity). It’s what Hayek called the Road to Serfdom. A previous editor of First Things, the late great Father Neuhaus, recognized this. As he and Peter Berger wrote, policymakers had to recognize and respect the role of intermediating institutions to advance e pluribus unum. “unum is not to be achieved at the expense of the plures. . . .the national purpose indicated by the unum is precisely to sustain the plures.”

It’s fine if Reno likes the New Deal — progressives of all parties tend to. And it’s certainly true that the New Deal borrowed influences from Catholic social thought, particularly from folks like Father John Ryan (and for a time Father Coughlin). But this is mind-bogglingly dumb, dishonest, or ignorant (or maybe all three).

The philosophical pragmatism of the technocratic progressives was the exact opposite of what I talk about in my book, and if he can’t see that, no wonder he gets so much else wrong.

But here’s the point. If you want to knock out what remaining safeguards there are against another New Deal, green or otherwise, you should ask yourself: Who will run it? And what will that mean for the things you hold dear? And how long will it be run by the good Czars you like?

After all, Obama wanted a new New Deal. How did his administration treat Catholics? How would it treat the schools David French is talking about? I understand that Rusty thinks he’s very persuasive, but count me skeptical that his new corporatist (in the real meaning of the word) New Deal  — or whatever he would call the tangible result of his gaseous wish casting — would have a particularly Catholic flavor or would treat Christian schools, charities, adoption agencies, or the Knights of Columbus as full partners in the project.

And even if this ridiculous pipe dream were to come to be, how corrupting would it be of those institutions in the long run? The very thing that has corrupted the elites Rusty denounces would in all likelihood corrupt the new elites too. How faithful is Catholicism in China today? How much witness did the Russian Orthodox Church bear in the old Soviet Union? Hell, give some religious “leaders” a taste of good radio ratings or a sweet land deal and a little fame these days and you can see how far they stray. Imagine what compromises they might make for the greater good and for the cause of national solidarity when they had real power. Power and status are more seductive than 30 pieces of silver.

Rusty bleats a lot about “Conservatism Inc.” as if it were a particularly clever or novel epithet. But oddly he also thinks he’s using it correctly. Here I am invoking the central arguments made by conservative thinkers from the founding until 2016 — including, for most of its history, his own magazine. I am defending the vision of the founders, the insights of Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek, William F. Buckley, and the causes of religious and economic liberty which have made this country one of the most glorious accomplishments in all of human history, and he’s whining about how I’m being mean to the New Deal, which put an immigrant in jail for charging too little for pressing a suit and tried to erase religious practices that did not align with its central planning.

That’s not Conservatism Inc. That’s conservatism. American conservatism.

Conservatism Inc. these days is the lusting for the power, relevance, and fame we see all around us, and I guess Rusty wants his slice.

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