On Liberty, Order, and Revolution

Two separate but related movements are playing out across our country right now.

The first is a grassroots protest movement driven by widespread outrage over the tragic death of George Floyd. Over the past few weeks, it has taken the form of speeches, peaceful demonstrations, discussions about the persistence of racism in America, and debates over police brutality.

The second is a radical, revolutionary movement seeking nothing less than a complete restructuring of our society and government. Its aim is to tear down America as it currently exists and replace it with something fundamentally different. Members of this movement are not interested in dialogue or the democratic process. They are determined to impose their will through intimidation and force, not debate.

This first group may be considered “liberals,” in both the classical and contemporary sense. They are concerned primarily with liberty and equality, and thus naturally skeptical of order, authority, and hierarchy.

The second group can be considered “radicals,” as they share many features of past radical, revolutionary movements. Unlike liberals, who are generally peaceful and accepting of gradual change, radicals view violence as a necessary and even righteous path to achieving their ends. Some are motivated by the naive belief that getting rid of existing institutions like the police will bring an end to problems inherent to the human conditions (i.e. greed, inequality, scarcity). However, many radicals are less concerned with building a better world than with burning down the old one. The thrill of rioting and looting and desecrating can become an end in itself. What they don’t realize is that there is always a smaller, better organized group waiting in the wings to capitalize on the chaos. Unlike the young, starry-eyed radicals being used to create the power vacuum, they know exactly what they will do once they step into it.

Of course, there is a third group: conservatives. These are the law-and-order types who have been watching the nation’s descent into anarchy with mounting horror and disbelief. They generally value liberty and security and support law enforcement, though they are more likely than liberals to own firearms for their own protection. Many conservatives do not recognize their country anymore. They are currently either thanking God that they live in rural, suburban, or red-state America, or else making plans to move there.

As I write this, a group of radicals has taken over a six-block area of Seattle, including a police station. They have declared it an autonomous zone, free from police interference. The irony that they have erected barriers (much like border walls), implemented ID checks, and posted armed guards is not lost on conservatives. How quickly do high-minded ideals melt away when injected with an infusion of power.

The radical Left has been equally merciless in the cultural arena. Even the popular kids show “Paw Patrol” has come under attack for depicting positive portrayals of police (talking cartoon dogs). A&E has pulled its hit TV-show Live PD. The Academy award-winning classic Gone with the Wind has likewise been pulled from HBO. Beloved author and liberal J.K. Rowling has been denounced by the radical Left for daring to defend the common sense notion that biological sex exists. When it comes to “cancel culture,” nobody is safe.

Where is all of this going? What is the end game?

I was discussing this with a friend recently. She wanted to know my take, as a student of history. My response: “The revolution will eat its own.” Allow me to explain.

While it can be exciting in the initial phases to denounce authority and demand drastic changes, the majority of people eventually tire of the unceasing demands of revolution. This includes even liberal “fellow travelers” who may have initially backed some of the radicals’ demands. At a certain point, the need for a return to normalcy overrides the desire for change. There’s a reason Mao needed a “Cultural Revolution” to bring back the spirit of revolution a few decades into China’s experiment with communism.

The irony now, as with the French Revolution of 1789, is that the liberals always give birth to the very radicals who eventually escort them to the guillotine. In 1791, the French National Assembly penned the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, a document full of Enlightenment high ideals. Less than three years later, King Louis XVI’s head was rotting on a pike, and France was in the grip of the Reign of Terror. Five years after that, the military dictator Napoleon Bonaparte was cheered as he entered Paris. This from the same crowds who had only recently demanded “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.” They were ready for the madness to end, and eager for a return to law and order.

The Russian Revolutions of 1917 followed a similar pattern. What began as liberal criticism of Nicholas II and frustration with Russia’s continued involvement in World War I ended with the radical Bolsheviks seizing power, a bloody civil war, and decades of totalitarian rule.

Of course, America was also born in revolution, but ours was an oddly conservative one. Men like Washington and Franklin saw themselves as restoring rights that stretched back to the Magna Carta and English common law, not creating something radically new. We drew our inspiration from John Locke, who argued that governments exist to protect our natural rights to life, liberty, and property. These ideas can be found almost word for word in our own Declaration of Independence.

The French had for their inspiration one Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Coming at the tail end of the Enlightenment and the beginning of the Romantic Era, Rousseau was critical of the overly rationalistic manner of earlier thinkers like Locke. He made a name for himself criticizing civilization itself in his 1754 Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, in which he presented man as a “noble savage” corrupted by society, and the institution of private property as his original sin.

In his later, more extensive work The Social Contract, Rousseau posits the state as the ultimate expression of the General Will, or the people collectively. As such, the state cannot be wrong. People who differ from the General Will must be rooted out and brought in line by force. But in the words of Rousseau, this means only “that he will be forced to be free.”

If you want to know how someone can go from denouncing inequality to demanding totalitarianism, look no further than Rousseau. I find his call for a civil religion particularly telling and prophetic:

It follows that it is up to the sovereign to establish the articles of a purely civil faith, not exactly as dogmas of religion but as sentiments of social commitment without which it would be impossible to be either a good citizen or a faithful subject…. While the State has no power to oblige anyone to believe these articles, it may banish anyone who does not believe them… As for the person who conducts himself as if he does not believe them after having publicly stated his belief in these same dogmas, he deserves the death penalty…

The dogmas of civil religion should be simple, few in number, and stated in precise words without interpretations or commentaries… As for prohibited articles of faith, I limit myself to one: intolerance. Intolerance characterizes the religious persuasions we have excluded.

Did you get that? If you don’t toe the line of the General Will, you will be banished. Pretend to do so and you will be executed. But all this in the name of tolerance!

In the case of Russia, Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin provided the intellectual inspiration. A Germany historian and philosopher, Marx viewed all of history through the lens of class conflict. He saw mankind as divided fundamentally into two camps: the haves and have-nots. In Marx’s day, the haves were the bourgeoisie, the ascendant middle class of industrial capitalist society. The have-nots were the “workers of the world,” the proletariat. Owning nothing but their own labor, they were forced to sell themselves at starvation wages to the owners of the means of production.

An atheist and a materialist, Marx rejected all divisions based on race, nationality, or religion – “the opiate of the masses.” He thought it was only a matter of time before the workers began to think of themselves as a class and unite against their oppressors. Then the workers or proletariat would seize power from the bourgeoisie through a revolution. They would run society temporarily as a dictatorship of the proletariat until such a time as class enemies were eliminated (they could not be reformed). At that point, there would be no need for government, as Marx saw government as just a means by which the ruling class oppressed the others (surely the proletariat could not oppress itself?). The reward for their hard work would be nothing short of heaven on earth, the “anarchist utopia” that would signal the arrival of true communism.

Vladimir Lenin made one key revision to Marx’s outline of revolution. The people themselves could not be trusted to guide the revolution. They would need an elite core to tell them what to do and crush all dissent.

Marx may have died in 1883, but his ideas live on in America’s colleges and universities. America’s Marxists have shifted their concern from the shrinking blue-collar working class (who tend to be Trump voters), to other “oppressed” groups: racial minorities, undocumented immigrants, and the LGBT community. As with original Marxism, the first step is to convince the majority of people that they are being oppressed. The second is to divide people into haves and have-not’s. After all, the flip-side of oppression is “privilege.” Just like the show trials in the old Soviet Union, class (now race) enemies must be made to publicly confess to their crimes, even the crime of simply belonging to a privileged group. But no apology can ever erase the stain of being an enemy of the people, a speed bump on the route to utopia.

Left-wing radicals are attempting to channel the legitimate grievances of historically underprivileged groups into an ax that they can wield against all the institutions they seek to overthrow: organized religion, law enforcement, the nuclear family. A cursory glance at the official Black Lives Matter organization reveals an agenda that goes far beyond saving black lives; it is saturated with Marxist thinking.

Marxists tend to denounce all authority and hierarchy as arbitrary. But as Jordan Peterson has explained, proper authority is not arbitrary; it is tied to competence. On an airplane the passengers listen to the captain; not because he is some tyrannical dictator, but because he is the only one knowledgeable enough to get them all safely to their destination. No sane person would suggest overthrowing the captain for the crime of elevating himself above the passengers; the result would be death for all.

Many hierarchies are just the natural results of variation across groups. There are necessarily fewer outstanding than mediocre basketball players. The same goes for plumbers, artists, and musicians. The excellent athletes, artists, and tradesmen make more money and receive more attention than their mediocre peers. This isn’t “unfair”; it’s life.

Perhaps academics and bureaucrats have a hard time understanding this, as their positions are more determined by connections than by merit (The same goes for the overfed children of the upper middle class who formed the core of Occupy Wall Street). They begin to see all hierarchy and authority as bad. There can be no families, as families subordinate children to their parents; no small businesses, as these subordinate employees to their bosses. Society appears like a house with far more people dwelling in the basement than in the upper levels. The only way to make everyone equal is to burn the house down.

And this would be a good solution, if one’s only goal was to make everyone equal, in some vague, amorphous sense. But what about liberty?

The radicals may be expressing themselves in the language of Karl Marx, but the real prophet of the nineteenth century was Fyodor Dostoevsky. In the book Demons (also translated as The Possessed), Dostoevsky describes how the generation of 1840’s liberals unwittingly gave birth to the radicals of the 1860’s. Even as the youth of the town descend further and further into nihilistic violence, the older, liberal generation looks on with mild bemusement until it is too late.

In Demons, one young radical proclaims:

“I got entangled in my own data, and my conclusion directly contradicts the original idea from which I start. Starting from unlimited freedom, I conclude with unlimited despotism. I will add, however, that apart from my solution of the social formula, there can be no other.”

Ha!

As Dostoevsky notes with both the title and epigraph of his book, there is something akin to demonic possession in the frenzy of the radicals. It defies logic or reason, but rather grips hold of a person or group, spurring them to commit violent acts. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the radical Saul Alinsky dedicated his book Rules for Radicals to the original rebel himself: Satan.

It’s worth looking over those rules now and seeing how they are being implemented. One in particular stands out: “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.”

What the conservative understands is that freedom is not simply the license to do whatever one pleases; such a world would quickly descend into hell on earth. True freedom, properly understood, is the ability to choose the good. This kind of genuine freedom only thrives where there are structures in place to channel human passions toward constructive rather than destructive ends. We are not born “noble savages” as Rousseau once claimed; society is not the enemy of morality, but rather its teacher. We are not each other’s enemies, as Marx later claimed; the line between good and evil runs through every human heart, not between “good” and “bad” classes of persons.

Our country was founded on the concept of ordered liberty, or freedom limited by the need for order in society. Today our rights are being threatened both by anarchy in the streets and draconian lock-downs imposed by state governments to fight COVID-19 (limits that oddly enough do not apply to protesters). Both have enjoyed widespread support from liberals, most of whom don’t yet realize the radicals’ agenda or the greater threat posed by the globalists’ desire to establish a new world order with themselves at the pinnacle.

The Right is not immune from its own extremist tendencies in the other direction. Fascism results when the need for order becomes an obsession, and hierarchies become too rigid. But I would argue that too little order poses a greater danger to genuine human freedom than too much of it, for the reasons explained above. Chaos is only a temporary state on the path to a new order more tyrannical than its predecessor.

The revolution will eventually eat its own. The question is, how will we measure the collateral damage, both to individual families and freedom-sustaining institutions? How long will the process of rebuilding take, before a civilization more confident in its purpose than our own is able to rise from the ashes?

The Case against Capitalism (and Socialism)

When teaching my tenth-grade world history students about capitalism, socialism, and communism, I start by giving them a ten-question survey of their views. This includes questions like:

  1. Free trade between countries is: a. Good, because it leads to lower prices for consumers, b. Bad, because it leads to lower wages/ less jobs for workers in your country, or c. Bad, because it leads to the exploitation of the working class around the world
  2. To address economic inequality, we should: a. Give everyone the chance to rise into the middle class through education and hard work, b. Tax the rich to fund programs for the poor, or c. Redistribute land and property from the rich to the poor
  3. Which is the greatest danger to the people? a. Government tyranny infringing upon individual liberty, b. Wealthy elites exercising too much power over the government, or c. Systemic exploitation of the working class by the middle class

Almost no one ever chooses all A’s, B’s, or C’s. Even conservative students will occasionally select the socialist answer, and even liberal students will select the capitalist answer at times.

From there, I try to make the strongest case for each system using the words of Adam Smith and Karl Marx. Then, as a class we pick these arguments apart, identifying their strengths and weaknesses.

For example, Smith and other capitalists claim that allowing individuals to pursue their self-interest in a free market most often benefits society as a whole. This argument works in many cases. Smith is correct in his insistence that “it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” One can imagine a range of economic transactions where individuals freely pursuing their self-interest in a competitive market results in win-win scenarios.

However, there can be numerous “market failures,” cases in which businesses acting out of self-interest can harm society as a whole. The easiest example to illustrate this concept is pollution. A company might save money by dumping waste into a river rather than disposing of it more carefully. This is good for the company in the short-term, as it increases profits, but terrible for society in general and even the company in the long-run.

So what do we do? We make rules. We pass laws demanding that industrial waste be disposed of safely. Even the most libertarian of economists will not deny the need for such regulations. In fact, they are necessary for capitalism to function. Capitalism is not so much the natural state of human affairs, but rather owes its existence to the establishment of certain laws, going all the way back to the eighteenth century. Conservative thinkers often (rightly) decry government intervention in the economy, but capitalism cannot exist without a government capable of establishing and enforcing “the rules.” In order to have a basketball or football game, all participants must know the rules, and neutral referees (the government) must enforce them. The teams and individual players cannot be expected to police themselves.

Okay, so the pollution example is handled easily enough. But are there inherent contradictions built into the capitalist system, as Marx claims? Consider big corporations. Their obligation is to maximize profits for shareholders. They can do this in two main ways: either reducing production costs and/or increasing demand. But both strategies can have negative repercussions for society, even endangering the capitalism system itself. If businesses cut production costs too much (for example: automating production, hiring fewer workers, or shipping jobs overseas) then either unemployment increases or wages decrease. Either way, there is not enough demand left to maintain current production levels.

Businesses must therefore innovate or die. But each innovation creates a new problem, essentially kicking the can down the road. For example, you can pass laws encouraging consumers to take on debt (for example, the mortgage interest deduction). This allows them to consume more goods. But what happens when the credit bubble bursts? Answer: another crisis (2008), another short-term solution (bailouts, stimulus).

Efforts to drive up demand are similarly problematic, especially for companies that sell products detrimental to the public good. Big Pharma, Big Tobacco, and Big Fast Food companies can only increase demand by getting the public to consume more drugs, cigarettes, and burgers. Each of these outcomes is demonstrably harmful to society as a whole and the individuals who find themselves addicted to these “products.”

Now, a capitalist might say that consumers are free to choose broccoli over Big Macs, gym memberships over cigarettes, holistic treatments over opioids. But when we look around, we see that the allure of cheaper, more convenient alternatives is too tempting for most people to resist. Even conscientious moms balk at spending twice the amount on grass-fed beef or organic produce. In the case of cigarettes and opioids, addiction negates any claim of consumer choice.

America’s current opioid epidemic is the most insidious example of capitalism run amok. It started back in 1996, when Purdue Pharma began aggressively marketing a new opioid painkiller, OxyContin. This included a bonus system for pharmaceutical reps to increase sales. According to one article,

These efforts succeeded spectacularly… OxyContin prescriptions for non-cancer-related pain went from about 670,000 in 1997 to about 6.2 million by 2002… A small group of physicians, some receiving funding from drug firms… lobbied to have pain recognized as the ‘fifth vital sign’… In 2001, Purdue spent $200 million marketing Oxycontin… by 2002, sales topped the $1.5 billion mark. Between 1991 and 2013, the number of annual opioid prescriptions in the U.S. increased from 76 million to 207 million, with corresponding increases in the number of cases of addiction, overdose, and death… the Department of Justice took notice, and charged Purdue with misbranding the drug’s abuse potential. In 2007, Purdue pled guilty and paid over $600 million in fines.

From a purely economic perspective, Purdue did what they were tasked to do: they made profits for their owners and shareholders. It’s hard to imagine any fines outweighing the billions they have made as America’s largest legal drug dealer. Perhaps they told themselves they were doing good – just helping to ease the pain of those who were suffering. Perhaps the enormous sums of money streaming in helped them sleep at night.

In the last sixteen years, overdose deaths from opioids have risen fivefold. From 2000 to 2016, 600,000 Americans died of opioid overdoses. Today, an average of 115 Americans die each day from overdosing on heroin or prescription opioids. At just 5% of the world’s population, we consume 80% of its opioids.

Addressing Big Pharma’s role in the opioid crisis does not require dismantling the entire capitalist system. But we have to be willing to change the rules to avoid undesirable outcomes. Interestingly, The U.S. and New Zealand are the only countries that allow pharmaceutical companies to advertise drug claims directly to consumers. Banning DTC marketing would not be enough to solve the problem, but it would be one step in the right direction.

If you change the rules of the game, you change how the game is played. Think of how much the addition of the 3-point line has changed basketball; outside shooting is now essential to win games. Within a few years, shooters got so good that the line had to be moved back. Think how much differently soccer would be played if there was no off-sides call. What if baseball went to a five-strikes-and-you’re-out rule, or dropped it to two? Either way, players and teams would respond to the new rules to maximize their chances of success.

To recap: every modern economic system, including capitalism, needs a clear set of rules and a government capable of enforcing them. Altering the rules alters how the game is played. When coming up with the rules, we must put the good of human beings first and foremost in our minds, not abstract concepts – whether they come from the left or the right. Increased government regulation is not a magic wand we can wave over any problem to improve it, and neither is deregulation.

G.K. Chesterton describes the confusion over the “capitalist” and “socialist” labels. Though most would consider him a conservative, Chesterton refused to defend capitalism, which he defined as:

That economic condition in which there is a class of capitalists, roughly recognizable and relatively small, in whose possession so much of the capital is concentrated as to necessitate a very large majority of the citizens serving those capitalists for a wage. If capitalism means private property, I am capitalist. If capitalism means capital, everybody is capitalist. But if capitalism means this particular condition of capital, only paid out to the mass in the form of wages, then it does mean something, even if it ought to mean something else.

G.K. Chesterton and Hillaire Belloc proposed a third option, which they called “distributism.” This system, based largely on Catholic social teaching, seeks to distribute property more evenly than “pure” capitalism (which doesn’t really exist), but without relying on government ownership of the means of production; thus, it is not socialism either. Distributism is based on the Catholic concept of subsidiarity – the idea that a community of a higher order should not interfere in the workings of a community of a lower order. The nation should not try to do what the states can do; the states should not try to do what the localities can do; localities should not try to do what families can do.

Simply put, scale matters. Almost everyone prefers the idea of small businesses to big corporations. Why not restructure our laws to favor the former and impede the latter.

Take this famous exchange from the classic film It’s A Wonderful Life:

George Bailey: Now, hold on, Mr. Potter. You’re right when you say my father was no businessman. I know that. Why he ever started this cheap, penny-ante Building and Loan, I’ll never know. But neither you nor anyone else can say anything against his character, because his whole life was… why, in the 25 years since he and his brother, Uncle Billy, started this thing, he never once thought of himself. Isn’t that right, Uncle Billy? He didn’t save enough money to send Harry away to college, let alone me. But he did help a few people get out of your slums, Mr. Potter, and what’s wrong with that? …is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath? Anyway, my father didn’t think so. People were human beings to him. But to you, a warped, frustrated old man, they’re cattle. Well in my book, my father died a much richer man than you’ll ever be!

If we are to be “capitalists,” then let us be capitalists like George Bailey and not Mr. Potter.

How do we encourage the George Bailey’s of the world and keep the Mr. Potter’s at bay? Most of us would rather live in Bedford Falls than Pottersville. So why do we give our money to Mr. Potter? It will be hard to change the rules of the game to favor small businesses, as they cannot afford corporate lobbyists. In the meantime, we can consider the social effects of our daily economic decisions, choosing to spend our dollars supporting small businesses whose goals and business practices align with our values, even if it means spending a few extra dollars for daily items.

Joseph Peace summarizes disributism thus:

In practical terms, the following would all be distributist solutions to current problems: policies that establish a favourable climate for the establishment and subsequent thriving of small businesses; policies that discourage mergers, takeovers and monopolies; policies that allow for the break-up of monopolies or larger companies into smaller businesses; policies that encourage producers’ cooperatives; policies that privatize nationalized industries; policies that bring real political power closer to the family by decentralizing power from central government to local government, from big government to small government. All these are practical examples of applied distributism.

In my son’s 10-year-old boys’ basketball league, the rules are designed to give all players the chance to play and grow. For example, each player must play at least two full periods. If one team is up more than 10 points, they can no longer apply full-court pressure. Now, is this the equivalent of “socialist” basketball? Certainly not. The system still runs on competition. Coaches and players still have the freedom to decide what type of sets to run and shots to take.

It seems like the rules of the game are rigged to disproportionately benefit those who are already wealthy. This is not just a Bernie Sanders talking point. In fact, both Sanders and Trump – the two most popular candidates in the last election cycle – ran against capitalism (recall Trump’s attacks on free trade). The fact that the eight wealthiest people in the world have more money than the bottom half – that’s 3.5 billion men, women, and children – should give us all pause. Most voters – Sanders and Trump supporters alike – want to see the rules changed to create a more fair game. If a rec sports league can do it, why can’t we?

Instead of focusing on labels and ideologies, which often mean different things to different people, we should be focused on real-world solutions that put people – not profits, and not government – back at the center of economic life.