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.
I am in an odd position with respect to Hungary. Because I’m half Hungarian, speak the language (rustily now) and two decades ago spent nearly a year there, I know much more than most Americans. In fact, the first post-Communist prime minister, József Antall, was my grandfather’s first cousin. On the other hand, my knowledge of current Hungarian events is gleaned mostly from English-language media, which is almost all both grossly ignorant and grossly biased. Lasse Skytt, a Danish journalist resident in Hungary, has arrived to help me out, by offering an excellent neutral view of Hungarian politics, deliberately designed to be purely informative, rather than polemical.
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.
Last year, I went to the State Fair, and simply sat and watched the people pass by. The vast majority were lower class, and looked it. I tried, for a change, to ignore the externals and imagine myself conversing with individuals with whom, to an outside observer, I have nothing in common. Chris Arnade wrote Dignity to document a similar exercise, though one far more in-depth. He travelled the country, talking to many people from the lower classes, what he calls the “back row.” Then he wrote up what he had learned, and added a great deal by filling the book with pictures, so that the reader can perform the same exercise I did at the State Fair, and ponder respect and the back row in today’s society.
In Conformity, Cass Sunstein takes common sense about how decisions are informed, and distorted, by social pressure and makes it both better and worse. Better, because he shows why common sense is confirmed by logic and experiment. Worse, because he makes it feel pedantic. But if you reflect on the discussions in this book, and apply them to current events and your own thinking, you can get some interest and excitement back into your brain, and maybe benefit yourself and society as well.
Glenn Reynolds, the famous “Instapundit” and a law professor at the University of Tennessee, offers a short book about social media and the problems it brings. He frames his analysis and argument as a parallel to James C. Scott’s Against the Grain, which valorizes Mesopotamian hunter-gatherers. Reynolds’s point is that just as when hunter-gatherers became city dwellers they also became more susceptible to disease, so when we submitted ourselves to living on social media, we also became more susceptible to disease. That is, to diseases of the mind, and he offers some possible cures and vaccines.
Conservatives have long complained about the administrative state, the monster that swallowed America. Many complaints focus on the end result: how the administrative state is a tool of the Left, that accomplishes innumerable Left goals, all destructive. Other complaints, more technical, focus on how crucial elements of the American constitutional system, such as separation and enumeration of powers, have vanished, destroyed by the Blob-like growth and flailing tentacles of the administrative state. John Marini steps back even further, to show how the administrative state is utterly incompatible with the philosophical vision of America’s founding, and is rather the fruit of poisonous modern philosophies, deadly to any society based on natural right and reason.
Not everyone buys my belief that we are fast heading, in America, to some combination of the works of John Rambo and Francisco Franco. After all, it’d be more pleasant to all just get along. Good beer, good food, good times. Those things seem a lot more attractive, to everyone, including me. True, such hopeful imaginings have more than a little in common with M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village, where moderns retreat into an idyllic pre-modern existence and are protected from the horrors outside—until they’re not. But if a pleasant future is indeed possible without first undergoing some traumatic societal purgatory, it might be achieved through what is generically called communitarianism, so that is what I want to examine today.
This is a book born of a particular time and place. The time was 1962; the place was postwar Europe. The West was frozen in the glare of spreading Communism, paralyzed by the catastrophic end of the old European system and wholly uncertain of the path forward. Since that time, the ice has broken and the West has lurched back onto the track—the wrong track, as it happens, but that’s not what we’re talking about today. Instead, we’re talking about what Theory of the Partisan says to us in this time and in this place.
Just in time for the first Democratic presidential debates, I have finished candidate Andrew Yang’s manifesto, The War on Normal People. From its title, which subversively suggests there is such a thing as normality, you can tell that Yang is trying to be different. From its subtitle, you can learn of Yang’s core big idea, universal basic income, UBI. I was prepared to be unimpressed, but really, the book is well written, and UBI, as Yang explains it, has a certain attraction, even though it’s utterly unachievable in a democratic system. In the coming less-democratic system, however, maybe there is something here we can use, and at least Yang is offering something new, which may get him traction in the Democratic field.