Friday, October 31, 2008

Gather Darkness

Recently I discussed the financial crisis with a Christian who has never read a book of economics. He began by denouncing the greedy CEO's on Wall Street. I argued that greed had nothing to do with the problem, but it was entirely the fault of government intervention in the economy. After all, how does it help a greedy CEO to bankrupt his company? He won't get another job if he does. How is it greedy to commit career suicide?

The Christian took my points several times. He is an honest man who wants to know the truth, and he accepted my arguments. Then a few minutes would pass and he would be back talking about greed. I was struck by how he would return to the point of greed even though he understood it was not really the issue. His morality and the premises he had automatized in his subconscious would not let him believe greed was not at fault.

I take this conversation as evidence that the entire political battle in America is really a battle of ethics. You can win economic arguments all day, but as long people think that morality is self-sacrifice, we will never make significant progress in rolling back the state. The 20th century is one long cautionary tale with a clear moral: socialism does not work. And yet both Republicans and Democrats are leaping over themselves to expand government control of the economy. Spending just keeps skyrocketing and liberals crow that the age of the free market is over. No more of that trickle down stuff for America! We're gonna take as much money from the rich as we want and shower in wealth!

Democrats know full well that the battle is moral. They never bother to make complicated economic arguments. In part this is from ignorance: somehow I don't think geniuses such as Henry Waxman or Robert Byrd have spent 10 minutes trying to understand Ludwig von Mises. But their ignorance is not the fruit of sloth. They don't care about economics because they know it's a waste of time. All they need do is mention obscene profits or greed, and conventional morality makes the rest of their case.


Those who pooh-pooh the fear that Republicans are becoming the party of religion are not paying attention. On my local right-wing talk radio station, part of Salem broadcasting, all the political ads are meant to appeal to the religious right. There are no ads for McCain (it's California), but there are ads about propositions. The two issues getting advertising are abortion and gay marriage (they're against both). Three of the stars on the Salem network are Hugh Hewitt, Michael Medved and Dennis Prager -- all religious conservatives. (Hewitt and Medved, at least, are very much economic pragmatists who denounce "extremism" because they think moderates only can be elected these days. Limbaugh is better in this respect.)

Former baseball pitcher Frank Pastore, who sometimes fills in for Hewitt, has titled his latest column, The Christian Case Against Barack Obama. He does not give any reasons in the column, just advertises some videos in which he supposedly lays out his case. My point is that you see more stuff like this than you used to.

20 years ago we knew that Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson were part of the Republican Party, but it felt like they were confined to a ghetto within the party. They were the voice of the Bible Belt. I was amused or sometimes disgusted by them, but I never took them too seriously. Now the religion is more widespread. Prager and Medved, intellectual Jews, would not be mistaken by anyone for Southern Bible thumpers.

John McCain had to pick the very religious Sarah Palin in order to win the base of the Republican Party.

President Bush is the religious right's greatest success so far. His pathbreaking presidency has integrated religion with the welfare state. He calls it "faith based initiatives." Dr. Peikoff says George W. Bush is to the religious state as FDR was to the welfare state.

The question of how dangerous the religious right is compared to the socialist/nihilist left, in both the near and long term, is legitimate; however, it cannot be argued any more that the religious right is increasing its hold on the Republican Party. Perhaps it controls the party.


In the comments on the last post on this blog I dismissed the idea of trying to predict the future. That was before I read this quote Donald J. Boudreaux uses from the socialist Norman Thomas in the early 20th century:

"The American people will never knowingly adopt socialism, but under the name of liberalism, they will adopt every fragment of the socialist program until one day America will be a socialist nation without ever knowing how it happened."

There is a man with a crystal ball.

We seem to be at the beginning of a new period in American history, a dark time of increasing state control. In such a moment people speculate a lot about the future. What will happen? Galileo Blogs thinks we will relive the '70s. (If so, can we do it without the bell bottom pants and leisure suits?) Arthur Laffer says the age of prosperity is over.

Those are educated guesses. We might live through something entirely unlike anything America has yet seen.

One event can change the world. World War I destroyed the benevolent and secure -- leftists would say smug and bourgeois -- culture of the 19th century. Things could never be quite the same after that cataclysm. As I have written several times on this blog, both Ayn Rand and Ludwig von Mises noted that no one who did not live before WWI can quite understand how positive and benevolent the west was then. The idea that fuels all of Joseph Roth's fiction is a longing for that era, a culture that would never live again. As another writer put it, you can't go home again.

The greatest world-changing event in history is Alaric and the Huns' sacking of Rome in 410 a.d. Until then the city of Rome had been accepted as a metaphysical fact of reality, like gravity or the sun rising in the east or the stars coming out at night. The sack of Rome shocked people throughout the Empire and destroyed their confidence. Augustine wrote City of God in response: all of man's creation on earth is impermanent; only the realm of God is permanent and real. The Roman Empire was over -- it was just a matter of time.

Could such an event happen in America? Yes, if there were a force in the world comparable to the barbarians in the 5th century. If, say, a religion wanted to destroy America and erect a worldwide theocracy -- a religion whose adherents believed God wanted them to kill infidels and who were willing to commit suicide in order to enjoy 72 virgins in paradise -- yes, there might be some danger if such a religion were at war with America. Fortunately, as we have been told, Islam is a religion of peace.

Besides, if such a totalitarian ideology were at war with us, we would quickly destroy all states that sponsored these warriors. We would wipe them out and demoralize their cause for all time. We would not make a half-hearted effort, swatting them down some, then appeasing this enemy and letting him survive to attack us another day. To take such a tremendous risk with America's security would be foolish and suicidal. Our leaders in Washington, D.C. are good and wise; why, they would sooner do something futile and senseless like socialize Wall Street than appease an enemy that wants to destroy us.

One suitcase nuke could change the world.


Jim May said...

Democrats know full well that the battle is moral.

They sure do.

Jason H. Bowden said...

"You can win economic arguments all day, but as long people think that morality is self-sacrifice, we will never make significant progress in rolling back the state."

This is the essence of the matter. Unfortunately, it goes deeper than Christianity. In previous ages, it was good to be a Christian because of the heavenly reward; a good God thought this was love for those who loved him and his creation. Now Christians are more likely to spit at such a suggestion, comparing it to bribing a kid with good behavior with candy.

I fear that self-destructive nihilism is a permanent feature of the human experience; it can be denied victory at times, but it will never be defeated.

Richard said...

Bomber William Ayers may have had a good point, for the wrong reasons. Abstainers should be bombing both Republican and Democrat campaign headquarters.

Kidding, of course. Peikoff describes the progress of religion in America as an "infinitely greater" threat than socialism. In hindsight, the incredibly despicable Democrat Presidency of Al Gore would have been less damaging to America than Dubya. Gore would have tried to implement Green and Left policies, but it would have been he who had to face 9/11. His response would not have as readily accepted that Islam is a religion of peace. He likely would not have gone into Iraq, or called the fight a War on Terrorism.

Much as I hate to admit it, Peikoff is beyond right, he was nearly prescient (like Ayn Rand). Obama is sheer f'ing Hell by any standards, but McCain will move faster in the more deadly direction.

I hope ARI gains cultural traction within Obama's presidency.

Jason H. Bowden said...

Above should read "bribing a kid toward good behavior with candy."

Richard said...

Sorry; I accidentally published before previewing. Please presume a new paragraph that starts with "Peikoff".

Anonymous said...

Norman Thomas confesses what I've said many times: to take over America, the Left had to come in under cover by co-opting one of its existing movements. That subterfuge was never needed in Europe because the individualist aspect of the Enlightenment did not "take" there, the way it did here... that is why "liberal" still means what it should in the rest of the world.

The opening the Left needed to get into America was American liberalism's philosohical dependence on Europe. Altruism was the great contradiction of American liberalism -- their unwillingness to accept that freedom is a selfish thing: it places freedom of choice over "duty to others".. The Left forced them to face the contradiction, and over the course of the last century, step by step, they chose accordingly.

Jim May said...

That last comment is mine, btw.

Anonymous said...

It's frustrating to see 100-year old prophecies of doom come true. The crash at the end of the line has been obvious for a long time, yet people still signal for full speed ahead.

Hook, line and sinker. One problem with democracy is that it lets fish vote.


Chuck said...

Joseph Roth sounds like an interesting writer. Do you have any suggestions on which of his novels, or stories, would be the best place to start reading him?

Myrhaf said...

All I've read of Roth is some short stories and a book called Three Novellas. He writes about idealists who fight for their values but cannot achieve them because they are not practical people. He is most famous for a novel called The Radetzky March, set in the Austro-Hungarian Empire of his youth. I like what I've read of him, but I have a large tolerance for early naturalism, as long as it tells some kind of story and keeps me turning the pages. (Recently, I have been trying to read Saul Bellow's short stories, which are about the most boring fiction I have tried to get through.

Craig Ceely said...

Well, Saul Bellow really is boring.

For a readable naturalist, I recommend Sinclair Lewis. His Elmer Gantry and It Can't Happen Here ring with far-seeing truth today.

Galileo Blogs said...

Nice post, Myrhaf, both in content and in writing. I agree completely about the importance of fighting on a moral level. The economic or practical argument built upon an unchallenged base of altruism (in the case of conservatives) or an anything-goes non-morality (in the case of libertarians) is completely ineffective.

We are seeing this now with the religious conservatives. If they have to choose between capitalism and religion, they will take religion every time. That is why they have become comfortable with Bush's Big Government conservatism. After all, Bush is a true-believing Christian. The way one Bush supporter said when I pointed out Bush's policy failures to him, "But Bush is a *good* man." His Christian "goodness" trumps his incompetence and welfare statist policies. But of course the latter really is consistent with the Christian ethic.

Tenure said...

I think this is probably one of your best posts Myrhaf. I really like it - that is, it really expresses the dangers we now face.

What do you think we can do, if anything, to change the inevitable?

Myrhaf said...

Galileo Blogs, Tenure, thanks.

What can we do? You know the answers one usually hears to that question. I suppose a letter to the editor is of slight use, but complaining to politicians is a complete waste of time.

You have no duty to change the world. Live a life of rational self-interest. The morons and the moochers will get what they deserve.

The spread of Objectivism is the only long run answer. I think Obama helped that spread more than I have in my entire life when he attacked the virtue of selfishness recently. He made it clear that he is opposed to Ayn Rand's ethics. I hope this motivates those who oppose Obama to pick up a book by Ayn Rand.

Galileo Blogs said...

"I think Obama helped that spread more than I have in my entire life when he attacked the virtue of selfishness recently. He made it clear that he is opposed to Ayn Rand's ethics. I hope this motivates those who oppose Obama to pick up a book by Ayn Rand."

That is the best reason to vote *for* Obama this election. There is no confusion about where he stands. Vote a Republican in and you get an unholy mess of contradictions, all the while paying lip-service to "free markets." However, that is also ending among the Republicans who are becoming ever more clearly a party of religion.

Jim May said...

Galileo: that is what I'm beginning to let myself think over the last few weks: OBama may offer us more teachable moments than we can handle.

I plan to radically boost my ARI donations now... they're going to need every dollar, every bullet in their arsenal -- as this is going to be an unbelievable target-rich four years.