Among the many idols of our age, there is one that rules them all: John Stuart Mill’s harm principle, the belief that an individual’s choices may never be legitimately hampered, by anyone at all, except if he is harming others. Bizarrely, this idea, radical in 1860 when Mill published On Liberty, has now even been enshrined as the core principle of our Constitution, at least if you believe Anthony Kennedy and the majority of the Supreme Court. This book, of which you have probably never heard, was published in 1873 and is regarded as the best contemporaneous refutation of Mill. Maybe it is, but its refutation is too narrowly based and accepts far too many of Mill’s premises. It is a start to overthrowing the golden calf, but only a start.
The American conservative movement is traditionally dated to 1955, the date William F. Buckley started National Review to “stand athwart history.” For decades, conservatives looked back to that event as some combination of Moses parting the Red Sea and Prometheus bringing fire to Man. Some still do, dreaming misty-eyed of the past as they fumble for their dentures. But it is obvious, in retrospect, that nothing Buckley did ever accomplished anything. On the contrary, he and his myrmidons, like Judas, delivered America bound into the hands of its enemies.
Richard Nixon’s name is often invoked, but what we hear, for the most part, is not history. Rather it is incantation, much like watching a medieval morality play, where every character has his place, and Nixon’s is Evil. Given this, John Farrell’s 2017 biography performs two services. The first is to go behind the stage and show Nixon in all his lost complexity. The second is to show how the destruction of Nixon has been used as the template in attempts to similarly destroy Donald Trump. For people like me, who did not live through the Nixon years and only know of him through the malevolent mumblings of senile Baby Boomers, lost in their delicious opium dreams of youth and JFK, this book is therefore most enlightening, both of the past and the present.
Michael Anton is the man who today best communicates the fractures among the Right. He identifies, and exemplifies, growing incompatibilities among conservatives, both on the issues of the day and in beliefs about desirable political structures. Anton first came to public notice under a pseudonym, Publius Decius Mus, writing in 2016 during the brief life of a pro-Trump blog, the Journal of American Greatness. In September of that year, Anton published a famous essay, “The Flight 93 Election.” His first point was that, like the passengers of Flight 93, Americans opposed to the permanent boot-stamping dominance of the Left had an existential choice. They could, as it were, charge the cockpit by taking a chance on Trump. Or they could passively accept Hillary, and face certain political death. His second point was that their behavior when faced with this choice showed that the conservative movement, as it exists now, was wholly worthless. These claims were, no surprise, controversial.
This classic book, by a long-dead and almost-forgotten German economist, is suddenly relevant again. I have had a copy on my bookshelf for thirty years, never read, and I was startled by how timely A Humane Economy is. Today, elements of Left and Right are ganging up to kick neoliberalism when it’s down, aiming to break the long-dominant alliance between the corporatist Left and Right, and thereby to overturn the instrumentalist view of humans as fodder for an economic machine. We are simply awaiting the next crisis to see what will emerge. Wilhelm Röpke foresaw the problems we face today, because he lived through their early days—though I am not sure his solutions are practical, at least until a lot more chaos first sweeps across the land.
As the ideological tectonic plates shift in America, many apparently settled matters have become unsettled. This creates, at the same time, both conflict and strange bedfellows, though I suspect the latter will become used to each other soon enough. Such once-settled matters include hot-button cultural matters like nationalism, but also dry, technical matters of little apparent general interest that are of profound actual importance. Among these are the place in our society of concentrations of economic (and therefore political) power, the subject of the excellent Tim Wu’s awesome new book, The Curse of Bigness. What Wu is hawking is “Neo-Brandeisianism,” and I am buying what he is selling.
Ship of Fools extends the recent run of books that attack the American ruling class as decayed and awful. However it is characterized, as the professional-management elite, the Front Row Kids, or one of many other labels, all these books argue the ruling class is running our country into the ground, and most argue it is stupid and annoying to boot. I certainly agree, and I also tend to agree with the grim prognostication in the subtitle, that revolution is coming—that is, this will end in blood. What this book fails to offer, though, just like all these books, is any kind of possible other solution. Which, after a while, reinforces the reader’s conclusion that there is no other solution.
Ernst Jünger was one of the more fascinating men of the twentieth century. Remembered in the English-speaking world primarily for his World War I memoir, The Storm of Steel, he was famous in Europe for a range of right-leaning thought spanning nearly eighty years (he lived from 1896 to 1998). His output was prodigious, more than fifty books along with voluminous correspondence, and not meant or useful as a seamless ideology, although certain themes apparently recur. This book, The Forest Passage, was published in 1951, and is a compelling examination of how life should be conducted under modern ideological tyranny.
Militant Normals is an enjoyable read, a rollicking journey with the acid tongue of Kurt Schlichter as our tour leader. It is full of facts that are impossible to dispute, because they are facts. It draws difficult-to-argue conclusions, including that our near future is likely grim. That said, I think Schlichter’s elite/normal framework misses important nuances and is a bit too glib. But even so, the well-deserved spanking Schlichter gives the Left is worth the price of admission.
This may be the worst well-written book I have ever read. That is, most awful books are bad in their writing, bad in their organization, bad in their reasoning, and bad in their typesetting. No such badness is evident here—How Democracies Die hits all the points it intends to, and reads crisply and smoothly. But it is ruined by a meta-problem: its utter cluelessness and total lack of self-reference. The authors, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, are very much like the Ken Doll in the Toy Story movies—vain, preening, and, most of all, utterly unable to realize, not that the joke is on them, but that they themselves are the joke.