They were so strong in their beliefs that there was a time when it hardly mattered what exactly those beliefs were; they all fused into a single stubbornness.
– Louise Erdrich
As Western Civilization continues its entropy-riddled dance of death, the citadels of the political establishment help to maintain the carnival sideshow nature of the event. Like a recently beheaded chicken that flaps about in a bloody show, driven not by the mind but by automatic reflexes, there is little in our culture’s demise that would appeal to intelligent men and women. Those who once turned to Abbott and Costello films for slap-stick comedy, now find academia, the mainstream media, and the political arena more entertaining sites.
I am intrigued by the charades put on by the two major political parties – the inaptly named “left” and “right,” two wings of the birds of prey at work in most supposedly “democratic” systems. In my undergraduate college days, Sen. McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee challenged us to focus attention on our political identities. While I never fashioned myself a “leftist,” I found those who embraced state socialism an interesting bunch of people. They tended to be intelligent souls with what appeared to be a well-thought out philosophy. The idea of the state planning and directing economic activity troubled me, however, for what may have been a genetic defense of liberty on my part; but I kept discussing such concerns with my socialist friends. While I had read John Locke, John Stuart Mill, and a few other early philosophers with whom I found myself in basic agreement, there were no intellectual groups – whether on or off campus – that provided a coherent alternative to state socialism. Like adult men playing basketball against kindergarten boys, the socialists had an easy time of it.
They could get away with providing simple-minded explanations for a simplistic system because their philosophy was in power not only within political systems, but on college campuses.
Those of us who had unfocused doubts about their collectivist ideology were confined to asking questions that produced unsatisfying responses. When my Keynesian economics professor informed us that “there is nothing bothersome about a national debt, because we only owe it to ourselves,” I asked: “if we only owe the debt to ourselves, why don’t we just repudiate it to ourselves?” My question was dismissed with a snicker. When we were expected to go into a self-righteous faint over the early Industrial Revolution practice of women working in mines, and children working in factories, my individualistic question about whether such employment was “voluntary,” was met with “how can such work be considered ‘voluntary’ when it was needed for survival?” Years later, I had a discussion with a collectivist colleague, in which I informed him that the children who worked in early textile mills were able to avoid the high death rates that otherwise plagued orphaned children. “What if your children were faced with this problem, and had to work in a factory in order to survive?” His response was remarkable: “I would rather have them die, than to suffer the indignity of working in a factory!”
A monopoly in the marketplace of ideas provides little incentive for the creation of new ideas or even the transformation of established ones. Being left to my own inquisitiveness, and to the failure of superficial answers to satisfy the demands of what has always been my favorite word (“why?”), provided me with the greatest source of my understanding: the continuing refinement of my own thinking. It was not in answers coming from teachers, intellectuals, or revered philosophers that mattered, but in the quality of my questions. In this regard, I found the thinking of two diametrically-opposed thinkers helpful. One was Ayn Rand; the second was a philosophy seminar I took on Marxism, taught by one of the most respected of Marxist philosophers. The Marxist was one of the best teachers I have ever had; a man who used the Socratic method, and who never resorted to intimidation, name-calling, or other intellectually dishonest means. What made eachof them so helpful to me was that they were so precise and focused in their questions that I had to keep sharpening my responses, particularly those I was formulating within my own mind. While this worked to my intellectual benefit, the Left’s monopoly on opinion began to atrophy. Like a paralyzed leg muscle, its lack of exercise in the face of an energized antagonist diminished its vibrancy.
In what has come to be known as the “Old Right” – which helped to provide the seedbed for modern libertarian thought – it found coherent principles expressed in the works of such persons as John T. Flynn, Leonard Read, Murray Rothbard, and Russell Kirk. I would also include newspaper publisher, R.C. Hoiles – whose California papers carried front-page headlines opposing, from the start, the incarceration of Japanese-Americans in concentration camps. Old Right politicians were also found in such men as Sen Robert Taft, Warren Buffett’s father Rep. Howard Buffet, and Sen Ken Wherry. Shortly thereafter, Sen. and Republican Party presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, novelist Ayn Rand, and F.A. Hayek began tapping in to anti-state sentiments long-buried beneath the surface of what the socialists had been successful in generating: the illusion of consensus-based social policies to be created and enforced by the coercive nature of the state.
Following the end of World War II, the modern Right abandoned the principles of individualism, free-market economic systems, non-interventionist foreign policies, and the inviolability of private property, that helped drive Old Right thinking. Throughout the Cold War and thereafter, the political Right was in a state that could best be described as stillborn. With the help of a well-entrenched gang of ardent statists, the Right became dominated by hostility to socialism – with emphasis on Cold War opposition to the Soviet Union and China. Despite President Eisenhower’s farewell address warning about the dangers inherent in the military-industrial complex, the Right – and much of the Left – found a raison d’etre for its existence in the highly-profitable and power-satisfying ambitions of the war system.
With the demise of the Soviet Union, socialism’s promises of rationally-managed economies brought an end to the delusional nature of state-planning. Reality has a way of overcoming utopian systems, a proposition clearly expressed by the well-known spokesman for National Socialism, Joseph Goebbels, who declared that “truth becomes the greatest enemy of the State.” It has become difficult – if not impossible – to find genuine economists who are prepared to defend socialistic systems of state planning. As a consequence, the Left has had to scurry to find a substitute rationale for their exercise of wide-ranging state power. Beginning with an anthropogenic threat of a coming period of “global cooling,” it soon changed the menace to “global warming.” Acknowledging that the geologic record reflects numerous periods of temperature changes, the alleged threat was transformed into “climate change.” Change being a constant threat to the established order, this concocted peril was readily accepted by institutionalized minds.
Whether one viewed socialism from the Left – as a utopian ideal – or from the Right – as an international force for evil – was relatively insignificant to either wing of the state bird of prey. What mattered to members of each crowd was that this doctrine could be exploited to mobilize popular support for their respective ambitions to have unrestrained state power over their neighbors. If socialism lost its appeal whether as a dream or a nightmare, new icons could be invented: isn’t this what intellectuals are for? To those on the Left, individuals leaving their carbon footprints in the world can make life itself a threat to be overcome by the most detailed of regulations. To those on the Right, lists of “endless enemies” can easily be concocted to justify the expenditure of trillions of dollars to enrich weapons manufacturers and others who profit handsomely at the trough of the war system.
It is unclear whether it makes sense to continue speaking of the Left and Right particularly when their common ancestry, socialism, has little more than a historic meaning. The Old Right has largely transformed itself into a libertarian/anarchist philosophy for which ties to state socialism have little meaning. The statists of both wings, for whom socialism provided both meaning and energy, will likely take advantage of the resiliency that is the nature of life, and fabricate new definitions to sustain their appetites for power. In this regard, I am reminded of the plants that worked out symbiotic relationships with specific forms of animal life. With the subsequent extinction of the animals, the plants had to find new partners – perhaps humans – with whom to share the mutually beneficial interests in both individual and species survival (see, e.g., Connie Barlow’s wonderful book, The Ghosts of Evolution).
In the efforts of Left and Right proponents to redefine their ambitions for the exercise of authority over others, might these remnants of a shared socialist ancestry be prepared to acknowledge the dehumanizing ugliness of state power in all its manifestations? At a time when well-meaning men and women wring their hands over the prospect of the North Korean government trying to arm itself with nuclear weapons, and threatening to use them against other nations, it may reduce our self-righteous hubris to remember our history. What nation was responsible for inventing and producing nuclear weapons; and what nation has thus far been the only one to use them against another nation?
In the turmoil brought about by decades of both Left and Right practitioners having their hands on the levers of state power, a sense of humility should inform our judgments. It is neither the time for the Left to dream of reforming socialistic regimes, nor for the Right to revisit the Korean War. As wonderful as the old M*A*S*H movie and television series were, it is the height of indecency to treat war as a mix of fun, frolic, and womanizing, in a setting of death and dismemberment of human beings. No matter who is writing the scripts and directing the action, the immorality of the war system can never “make America great again.” Such ends cannot be achieved in abstract or collective ways. “Greatness” – whatever that may entail – is the product of individual accomplishment. “The true test of civilization,” Ralph Waldo Emerson concluded, is only to be found in “the kind of man the country turns out.”
Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] is Professor Emeritus at Southwestern University School of Law. He is the author of the newly-released In Restraint of Trade: The Business Campaign Against Competition, 1918–1938, Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival, and Boundaries of Order. His latest book is The Wizards of Ozymandias.
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