I appreciate Bronze Age Pervert’s (BAP’s) measured response to what I tried to make a measured review of his most unusual book. Yet most of what he now writes pertains less to my review than to the underlying phenomenon my review attempted to bring to light for a—let us say—older, more mainstream or establishment audience….
I appreciate Bronze Age Pervert’s (BAP’s) measured response to what I tried to make a measured review of his most unusual book. Yet most of what he now writes pertains less to my review than to the underlying phenomenon my review attempted to bring to light for a—let us say—older, more mainstream or establishment audience. Since BAP is a far greater authority on—indeed, participant in—that phenomenon than am I, I urge those readers who wish to deepen their understanding of it to pay careful attention to his reply.
I shall instead focus my response on two main areas: first, to clarify a few misapprehensions or misunderstandings about my review of BAP’s book; second, to draw out and elucidate our areas of continued disagreement.
First, I did not say, nor did I mean to imply, that BAP himself “is the engine of the online disturbances that have been loosely called the ‘alt-right’ since 2015.” I rather chose Bronze Age Mindset—or it chose me—as representative of a phenomenon of which I am dimly aware but readily admit I do not entirely understand. BAP seems to me right on the money when he refers to the “high barriers of entry to outsiders” of online “alt-right” discourse (more on this phrase in a moment). I confess myself too old, too hidebound, too uninterested to navigate that hall of mirrors. Or, not entirely uninterested, but aware that any attempt by me to understand what BAP calls this “highly individual form of visual communication in images and memes that evolve upon each other” would be fruitless, like a World War One vet trying to “grok” the Pranksters in 1966 San Francisco.
Bronze Age Mindset was therefore a godsend. It’s a “one stop shop” in that, rather than forcing me to traverse the Internet night and day in search of I-know-not-what, here was an actual book that develops a theme and makes an argument. It moreover draws on philosophic ideas familiar from my own education.
However useful Bronze Age Mindset was to me as a gateway into this forbidding world, I also believe—perhaps owing to my biases—that if this phenomenon or youth rebellion (or whatever you want to call it) is going to stick around for a while and gain traction, it will need more than memes. It will need books. Bronze Age Mindset may therefore one day be recognized as politically and historically significant. Only time will tell on that point, but I do expect that the memes—like all slang and other such youthful enthusiasm—will fade and be forgotten, replaced by a new lingo that will in turn fade and be forgotten.
As for the pesky phrase “alt-right,” careful readers—of which I am confident BAP is one—will note that I did not in my review attach that label to him or to his ideas. BAP himself disclaims the term, and I for one am happy to allow him to self-identify (ideologically) however he wishes.
But it must be said that, whatever the “alt-right” is, there are points of contact between it and BAP’s thought—above all, their joint insistence on the falsehood of the idea of human equality as explicated and put into practice by the American founders. BAP’s own ambivalence about the term can perhaps be seen most starkly from this bald contradiction: “The ‘alt-right’ doesn’t exist and has nothing to do with the media representations of it.” Which is it? Nonexistence or misrepresentation? Or is the former a function of the latter, or vice versa?
BAP accuses me of holding out his book as an exemplar of a familiar boogeyman for the conventional right, namely, “German nihilism.” I did not in fact say that, though I suppose it is not hard to surmise this conclusion from what I did say. BAP accurately summarizes Allan Bloom on this point, but not my current way of thinking. BAP makes a stronger case against Bloom in his book, one he doesn’t repeat here, namely that Bloom stirred up an emergent “intellectual right” against the specter of “relativism.” I confess that I fell hard for this argument on first reading The Closing of the American Mind (on its publication in October 1987, age 17 and a freshman in college) and stuck to it for many years. But I long ago realized—as BAP points out in BAM—that relativism is a ghost, a chimera, not a thing. Or if it is a thing, it is not one to be feared because it has no traction—certainly not with the modern woke left, which is driven by an intense hatred, founded on an intense “certainty” of a quasi-religious yet militantly secular nature.
In any event, my beef is less with “German nihilism” than with nihilism simply. BAP is, I am confident, a more profound and experienced reader of Nietzsche than I am but I believe I know the latter’s works well enough to draw two conclusions. First, his analysis of the degradation of late modernity is generally on target; second, his specific platform or program or solution is not entirely original but draws heavily from ancient antecedents (it suffices to mention Thrasymachus, Callicles and the Athenian ambassadors to Melos) and therefore shares the same flaws or gaps. These are the very flaws or gaps that I tried to draw out in my review of BAM.
BAP also says that I failed to draw sufficient attention to his book’s wide range; I thought I had, but no matter. He suggests that I don’t “get the joke,” that I willfully or mistakenly take seriously what is meant playfully. Once again, I thought I had emphasized the book’s humor, even at one point using the word “hilarious”; but, also once again, no matter.
But I don’t think BAP can entirely get away with waving off the whole thing, as funny as it is, as a joke.
There is a core of seriousness to Bronze Age Mindset which I am sure the author intended and which will be found by those who look for it. What will they make of what they find? This is the question that presently concerns me. The other important questions—What does BAP actually believe, and what is the real truth, or as close as we can discern it?—are important but can remain topics for another day, should BAP choose to keep the dialogue going.
In both his book and response, BAP appears to predict a looming end to what he calls the “New World Order” (borrowing, presumably, from George H. W. Bush). Certainly, it has to end sometime, and given its brittleness, stridency, irrationality, consuming hatreds, and antipathy to nature and natural limits, it is not unreasonable to suppose that it may end sooner rather than later. What then?
In the very last chapter of Bronze Age Mindset, BAP predicts (or should that be “calls for”?) the establishment of “fortresses on the edge of the civilized world” by “superior specimens” who will “wage war” and “offer the nations of the world defense in exchange for a price.” BAP refers to this as “high piracy” without specifying what distinguishes this particular form of piracy from the low kind.
I am pretty sure BAP is not being strictly literal here, and I must admit that the whole seventy-seventh chapter constitutes a whiz-bang ending. In his reply to me, BAP notes—in order to endorse—my comparison of his rhetoric to Machiavelli’s and Nietzsche’s. But that comparison, in addition to explaining (and to some degree excusing) rhetorical excess, also cuts another way. What of those readers who don’t “get the joke”? How might they interpret these, and other, BAPian declamations? Or more to the point, what might they do?
At a prosaic level, I suppose I have in mind the following. I wonder if BAP has read, or seen the film version of, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. In it, an inspiring, vaguely Nietzschean (and not so vaguely fascist) teacher casts a spell over a number of impressionable girls. One of them takes quite literally Miss Brodie’s exhortation to fight in the Spanish Civil War, runs off to Spain, and is killed.
What would BAP say (or think, or feel) if a reader not-so-finely-tuned to irony took up his exhortation to live like Bob Denard? Denard (I had to look him up) was a 20th century French mercenary who—apparently with the backing of the French deep state—fomented coups and other forms of violent instability in former French colonies in order to maintain French influence. BAP holds out Denard as the “Bronze Age Mindset” personified in recent times. Yet how practicable is the life of Denard for a young man disillusioned and disgusted by bugrule? What might happen were he to try? Especially considering such that a young man today will almost surely not have a deep state—French, American or otherwise—to backstop him. (This is before we even get to the question of the justice of such a life, about which more below.)
Now, one may dismiss all this as the paranoid speculation of an old fuddy-duddy. And I freely admit that the odds are low. I also admit upfront to having argued that Machiavelli’s rhetorical excesses may, from a certain angle, appear to have been justified or at least excused by circumstance. Yet to remain open to that possibility is not to deny the actual force of actual words. I sometimes have to remind students enthralled by Machiavelli’s incisive pithiness that the master does, for instance, recommend killing babies (Prince 3). He may have meant that as a joke, or as rhetorical “brutalization” to “free from effeminacy” those “much too confident of human goodness.” But still he said it, and if he escaped this-world accountability via death, on some level the infamy of the statement must attach to his reputation, to his nome. Or, as Leo Strauss put it in a similar context,
In a sense, all political use of Nietzsche is a perversion of his teaching. Nevertheless, what he said was read by political men and inspired them. He is as little responsible for fascism as Rousseau is responsible for Jacobinism. This means, however, that he is as much responsible for fascism as Rousseau was for Jacobinism.
BAP recommends nothing so outrageous as infanticide. Yet it is not unreasonable to wonder what his musings might inspire in others. BAP justifies his rhetoric on the ground that he is an anti-regime dissident and as such must attack the—very powerful, “smothering”—existing order with whatever weapons are at hand, and not directly, not on its own turf. Just as it would be folly for lightly-armed insurgents to charge a fortress, so BAP insists it is suicide for memer-dissidents to go tête-à-tête with the political-intellectual-academic-cultural-media establishment. Understood in this way, the recommendation to piracy must not be taken literally, much less acted on in the here-and-now, nor seen as practical or practicable for whatever comes later. It is rather “exhortation” for mustering the spirit, if not the tactics, necessary for resisting the Leviathan. And I would have to agree, this is the best—perhaps only—justification for such rhetoric.
Yet even if that’s true, does it not still carry dangers? To return to an earlier thread in the argument, suppose BAP is right that the collapse of the Leviathan is imminent. What might follow?
Pirates and Peloponnesians
Speculation along such lines can lead in a million directions. For the sake of clarity, let us focus on just one. Suppose that after the bang, a small or medium-sized community finds itself cut off from political institutions, supply chains, transportation systems, power grids, information networks and so on. Yet this community is more or less “self-contained,” capable of feeding itself and possessing decent infrastructure and the expertise to get and keep it running. These people’s first priority will of course be to see to the necessities of life. Suppose further that once they’re confident that they’re going to live, it eventually dawns on them that, politically, they’re on their own.
How will they organize? According to what principle—or lack thereof? “Piracy” will not offer a reliable guide. Without going into the whole megillah, which would require a treatise—such treatises have already been written and I am confident BAP has read them—we may observe the following.
Piracy, as I noted in my review, is a form of theft. No doubt it requires great physical strength, courage, and daring; no doubt the pirate possesses vastly more thymos and virtú than a hundred bugmen put together. So did Bob Denard, who, strictly speaking, was not a pirate. Yet did any of his adventures accomplish anything? Were they just?
BAP hurls amusing insults at some of history’s most revered, or at least famous, writers and thinkers. But even he calls Thucydides “a great man and a genius for the ages.” Zeus knows, I agree. Thus, I wonder whether BAP would dispute the following interpretation of the “great man’s” work.
Thucydides seems to indicate that a core reason for Athens’ defeat in the Peloponnesian War was not merely its nakedly unbridled imperialism but also the effect that imperialism had on domestic politics and, as it were, on the soul of the city. Imperialism is another form of theft—combined, we may say, with oppression. Very few men—and even fewer peoples—can long tolerate a self-understanding as the “bad guys.” The Athenian elites’ open advocacy of selfishness eroded morale at home and cut off the Athenian people’s recourse to even the pretense that they were fighting in a just cause. Perhaps worse, the Athenian “case” for imperialism rested on the supposition that Athens, being somehow superior to other cities, somehow deserved “more” than other cities. This “more,” in the non-capitalist economy of the ancient world, could only come at the expense of said other cities. But the liberation of acquisitiveness turns out to be hard to contain to the external or international sphere. Since I can’t do better than Strauss on this point, I will just quote him:
It is in the long run impossible to encourage the city’s desire for “having more” at the expense of other cities without encouraging the desire of the individual for “having more” at the expense of his fellow citizens.
Xenophon, another author for whom BAP professes admiration, teaches much the same point. His “Cyrus” transforms the republican “Persia” (really an imaginary improved Sparta) into a vast, and apparently successful, empire. In pre-expansion Persia, the commoners and the peers live together in largely the same physical space, but in most other respects dramatically apart. The commoners resent the fact that they have so little and envy the peers, while the peers perennially fear rebellion but also realize on some level that their treatment of the commoners is unjust. Cyrus needs the commoners in order to carry out his enterprise of mass conquest; there aren’t nearly enough peers to pull it off. But to get both sides to work together, first he needs to convince the peers that it will be safe to arm the commoners and that the peers will somehow benefit from taking the risk. Then he needs to convince the commoners that, despite how things may have looked for centuries, the peers don’t really have anything against the commoners and haven’t been trying to keep them down but rather the commoners have been victims of hitherto unalterably bad circumstances. Then Cyrus proposes a remedy which will benefit all: the two parts of the city will team up, pool their efforts and energies, and wring the good life out of the fruits and labors of others. Which is to say, together they will do to foreigners on a large scale what the peers had essentially been doing to the commoners on a smaller scale.
But it doesn’t work. Or rather, it works until it doesn’t. The whole arrangement is inherently unstable and depends, in the final analysis, on the force, personality and will of Cyrus. E.g., it’s just a superior form—a well-managed example—of tyranny. But it falls apart when Cyrus dies and the corrupt elite starts fighting over spoils. At the end of the day, there is no honor among thieves, not even in mob movies.
Getting back to our post-apocalypse homesteaders, all rule—or at the very least all stable, just rule—is based on some claim of legitimacy. Even tyrants try to feign legitimacy—something, it’s worth noting, that another Xenophontic character, Simonides, explicitly recommends to the tyrant Hiero. But feigning is clearly second-best, a stop-gap. Much better to have the real thing.
BAP indicates doubt about the existence of Aristotle, but even if the latter were entirely made up, it would still be reasonable to evaluate “his” arguments on their own terms. “Aristotle” teaches that legitimacy arises from two principles or factors: justice and longevity. The two are self-reinforcing in an almost circular fashion: ruling justly contributes to and bolsters legitimacy, which in turn bolsters longevity, while long-standing legitimate rulers are more likely to view the ruled as “theirs,” as people whom they hold in affection and wish to see helped, not harmed or exploited, and so are more likely to rule justly, which further bolsters longevity. But reach far enough back and legitimacy must have a beginning. At his most BAPian, Aristotle says that legitimacy can arise from voluntary submission to a superior man in a time of crisis; this, he indicates, is the origin of monarchy. But monarchy—especially hereditary as opposed to elective monarchy—inevitably degrades. For monarchy to remain both legitimate and longevous, it requires additional support. The initial grant of legitimacy to a heroic founder is a thus a source of capital that does not earn sufficient interest to sustain itself; unless replenished, it will inevitably be spent down.
The best case I can make for what I take to be BAPian political principles is that, in time of chaos, transition and danger, this source of legitimacy may again become necessary, useful, and even just. (Machiavelli says that no republic is ever founded as such but originates from the actions of “one alone.”) But BAP has neither solved nor even addressed the question of how this “heroic monarchy” may last—how it may self-perpetuate. Aristotle says that over time, the best way is to “mix” in other elements, other claims to rule—including the popular. This is more or less what the American founders tried to do, yet BAP explicitly dismisses that description of their intent. In any case, such a solution requires—looming above—a standard or frame of reference, which Aristotle no less than the American founders did not hesitate to call “justice.”
Thus even if our homesteaders begin their new existence under the umbrella of “one alone,” they can’t long justly remain there, nor do I see how they could come up with anything like a lasting just or legitimate basis for rule based on anything found in Bronze Age Mindset. No, worse: I fear that some will take from the book precisely the wrong lesson, that strength and daring are natural and/or just titles to rule, rather than qualities which are necessary to just rule but also easily abused and therefore requiring supervision by higher, soberer principles.
BAP attempts to wave off this objection by repeating that his book is not philosophy and adding that it “isn’t intended to provide a complete elaboration of this alternative or a philosophical treatise regarding the best form of government.” I of course never said it was or even should be, nor did I “demand that [BAP] engage in a debate about the rightness or wrongness of the ideas behind the American Founding.” But I did endeavor to subject BAP’s “every word to the assumption that he means it.” I expect and assume others will too.
What will they find? Far be it from me to review a book not written or to tell anyone else what to write. But it is, or ought to be, fair game to analyze what is plainly on the page. And what’s there is a negative or critical analysis of both the classical and the American accounts of justice and legitimacy, the complete absence of any “constructive criticism,” at least in the regime sense, combined with a prediction that the end is nigh. This more than suggests, or will likely suggest to certain readers, that if the cleansing fire doesn’t spark on its own, human agency may be justified to get it going, and that when the embers cool and it’s time to start over, the “mistakes” of the past will have to be avoided. It seems, from reading BAM in isolation, that readers will inevitably conclude that those “mistakes” include supposing that considerations such as “justice,” “equality” and concern for the status of the common man don’t inevitably lead straight back to bugrule.
What Is Highest?
If BAP were serious about “superior specimens” establishing “fortresses on the edge of the world” then we might say that he dispenses with the problem of the common people by dispensing with the common people. But only, of course, from said “fortresses,” from which they will presumably be deliberately excluded. Then who will do the work? I suppose, being pirates, the “superior specimens” will simply steal their sustenance.
But we’ve already established—and BAP has more or less admitted—that none of that is meant seriously. He presumably then realizes that as a practical matter, the natural aristoi and the common people are going to have to find a way to live together. That way—if it is to be, at the very least, stable, to say nothing of just—will have to give to the common people some measure of their due, or what they think is their due.
Or put this another way. Surely not all of BAP’s readers are natural aristoi, whatever they may imagine or wish themselves to be. Surely a great many of the disaffected youth to whom BAP appeals are “ordinary” or more or less “average”—and not, therefore, any less justified in resenting the order and its elites who despise them. Indeed, as I said in my review, BAP’s surface immoderation hides, at points, a moderate depth in that, however reckless his “political” speculations sometimes appear, his specific recommendations to his young readers are anything but dangerous and are even constructive. But even if every single BAP-fan were to cut out bad habits, take up lifting, and steel his spirit for the coming trials, the majority would still be “ordinary” for the simple reason that only in Lake Wobegon are all the children above average. What will be their place be in the BAPian future?
Xenophon and Machiavelli—however unsatisfying their answers to this question—at least have answers. Both are much more friendly to the common people than is Nietzsche or BAP, who salts his work with rhetoric more than merely dismissive but at times almost brutally contemptuous of ordinary folk.
Yet BAP is surely right that the bulldozer “equality” of the modern woke-left is destructive of all higher life and of human virtue simply. This is why, to return to a topic raised by BAP and touched on above, I don’t believe BAP is a “nihilist,” German or otherwise. He simply cares too much. Say what you will about beauty, strength, and daring, to hold these up as standards is to have standards, to look up at something higher—a stance not usually associated with nihilism. Perhaps understood this way, even Nietzsche was not a nihilist, though he was surely not—as BAP is not—a believer in the founders’ equality or even in classic natural right. That both partisans and opponents of these older understandings can share dissatisfaction with the present malignancy, and for much the same reasons, is evident enough. We may even share a general sense of what to do and how to do it—at least for now. Machiavelli describes the mission thusly:
I do not know if I deserve to be numbered among those who deceive themselves, if in these discourses of mine I praise too much of the times of the ancient Romans and blame ours. And truly, if the virtue that then used to reign and the vice that now reigns were not clearer than the sun, I would go on speaking with more restraint, fearing falling into this deception of which I accuse some. But since the thing is so manifest that everyone sees it, I will be spirited in saying manifestly that which I may understand of the former and of the latter times, so that the spirits of youth who may read these writings of mine can flee the latter and prepare themselves to imitate the former at whatever time fortune may give them opportunity for it. For it is the duty of a good man to teach others the good that you could not work because of the malignity of the times and of fortune, so that when many are capable of it, someone of them more loved by heaven may be able to work it.
But at some point, our remaining—and serious—disagreements will force us to square off: the content of what is taught will take on supreme importance. What is the highest standard? Is there something above beauty, strength and daring? If there is, is that something consistent with equality understood as a limiting principle to prevent or discourage strength and daring from abusing the common man? BAP’s answer would seem to be “No,” in which case he has a political teaching, whether he wishes to acknowledge as much or not. For to say “This is false, doesn’t work, never has and never will” is to say “Dispense with it; despise it; don’t ever try it or anything like it again.”
And in that case, all the theoretical and practical problems raised in my review remain. To restate them as succinctly as I can: there is in the human species an abundance of inequality by degree but none by “kind,” in the sense of entitling any “superior specimens” to rule the “lower” by right, and certainly not in ways the latter will readily accept. Attempts to find the “line” that clearly and cleanly separates “superior” from “inferior” fail in both theory and practice. At least that’s how it looks to me, from a continuous reading of ancient things and long experience with modern.
I raised all of this, and more, and BAP didn’t respond to any of it—neither to affirm nor to dispute. When a presumably intelligent man and careful reader remains silent on a point or points marshaled in direct response to his writings, that silence can be interpreted in one of two ways: either as a tacit indication that he considers the topic(s) being ignored as unimportant, even false, or as a tacit admission that he agrees with those points he declines to challenge. Somehow, in this case, I don’t think the latter is the explanation.
I’m still willing—eager—to have that discussion. I find it not merely interesting as a theoretical matter but vital as practical one. If BAP is right that the Leviathan will soon fall, then we had best get ready now thinking through what to replace it with.
The teaser for David Gordon’s reply to me—“Harry Jaffa’s disciples are rather sensitive to criticism”—represents an old, tired, disreputable rhetorical trick. Attack someone baselessly and then attack them again for the impudence of responding, as if the existence of the reply is itself proof of the attackee’s unworthiness. But what is one supposed to do…
The teaser for David Gordon’s reply to me—“Harry Jaffa’s disciples are rather sensitive to criticism”—represents an old, tired, disreputable rhetorical trick. Attack someone baselessly and then attack them again for the impudence of responding, as if the existence of the reply is itself proof of the attackee’s unworthiness.
But what is one supposed to do when attacked or misrepresented? In this telling: shut up and take it. But then why did David Gordon respond to me? Is it because “Libertarians are rather sensitive to criticism”? See how that works?
Gordon’s actual article is better than this teaser (and much better than his first effort), which leads me to believe it to be an addition by a snarky editor, perhaps without Gordon’s foreknowledge or approval.
Wisdom vs. Consent?
But on to substance. I shall pass over the points on which Gordon now says we agree. Unlike my teacher Professor Jaffa—of whom William F. Buckley famously said, “If you think it’s hard disagreeing with Harry Jaffa, try agreeing with him!”—I endeavor to make it easy for people to agree with me.
A central element of our continued disagreement is the status of philosophy in Jaffa’s thought, and in particular the question of whether wisdom confers a title to rule. Gordon says that Jaffa did not really believe—as he professed to believe—that consent is a requirement for just rule. To support this opinion, he links to his own 2002 analysis of Jaffa that runs to nearly 19,000 (!) words—not counting its 122 footnotes. The article is impressive for the work that obviously went into it. Yet, despite being accused by Gordon of having written a “long” reply to his initial article, I believe I can summarize and clarify the issue at hand much more briefly.
The ancient philosophers do appear to teach that wisdom is the only just title to rule. The reason, they argue, is that any activity is best performed—perhaps only truly performed—and therefore ought to be performed, by one who knows how. On one level this is obvious. To imitate the kind of analogy that Plato’s Socrates uses frequently: what is better, a pair of shoes made by a cordwainer or one made by someone who doesn’t know how to make shoes? Would you rather sail on a ship commanded by a pilot or by someone who’s never been to sea? Etc.
The ancients extend this thought to ruling: the best rulers are those who best know how to rule. Since ruling is in a sense “comprehensive” and must take into account all human activities—their relationships to one another and relative importance—ruling is then not merely or simply a matter of specialized knowledge but of wisdom, of comprehensive knowledge, of knowledge of the whole—or at least of the most important parts of the whole. The digestive tracts of gnats—a matter of keen interest to Aristophanes’ lampoon of Socrates—are a part of the whole but not, to say the least, an important part nor one relevant to politics. “Wisdom” is then not the totality of all knowledge but of important knowledge, which includes the ability to distinguish between important and unimportant, relevant and irrelevant.
(Here I pause to state and refute, on the ancients’ terms, the anticipated libertarian retort that since much human activity is properly outside or beyond or above politics, comprehensive knowledge is not necessary. First, the ancients would deny that any human activity but philosophy is beyond politics; politics qua politics governs and prioritizes human activity and thus must be comprehensive. Second, the ancients would say that even if one were to conceive—as we moderns do—of a “private sphere” that politics should not touch, such a conception presupposes a comprehensive reflection on political things that identifies the existence and legitimacy of said “private sphere.” This comprehensive reflection in turn presupposes comprehensive knowledge of the whole, i.e., wisdom.)
So: rule requires knowledge and good rule requires the highest knowledge. Those possessing this highest knowledge are therefore best suited to rule.
This seems almost tautological but turns out to be hard to implement in practice. To state only a few of the more obvious problems: Many claim to know how to rule, but do they really? Or do they claim to know out of hubris, ignorance of their own limits, and/or selfish desire? While it is obvious that some are better and more adept at ruling than others (Washington, e.g., was better than Buchanan), superior knowledge is not wisdom as such. Has there ever been, in the history of man, a human being perfectly knowledgeable about ruling? If not, then wisdom’s title to rule would seem to be more tenuous than first appears. Similarly, the human soul is a mixture of appetites, passions and reason. All men are blessed with and/or subject to all three in varying degrees and combinations. Do not even the most reasonable men also have passions, some of which can be destructive?
The ancients are well aware of all this. In Plato’s Republic—the book that makes the argument for wisdom’s title to rule more intransigently than any other—the recommended regime is said to be a “city in speech,” i.e., not real, imaginary. There are any number of ways in which Plato indicates that his “city in speech” can never be. The coincidence of wisdom and political power is incredibly unlikely and depends on chance. Even if it could be realized, it can’t last because of the difficulty over the long term of maintaining the right mix of types of citizens—which is to say, of “breeding” a sufficient cadre of philosophic souls. And its establishment literally depends on expelling, from an existing city, every person over the age of ten. If we weren’t sure whether or not Plato means the city in speech as a practicable proposal, that last consideration ought to settle the matter.
Hence we must restate the classical argument for the rule of the wise as follows: If there were such a thing as a perfectly wise (and passion-free) ruler, and if he could establish and maintain his rule over the unwise, then such a person could justly rule others without their consent.
The American Founders—emphatic believers in the principles of equality and government by consent—agreed. Hence Madison’s glib remark in Federalist 51 that “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” Or, as another Founding-era statement put it: God, “being possessed of infinite wisdom, goodness, and rectitude, is alone fit to possess unlimited power.”
Another way to state the issue is by recourse to the ancient question: which is superior, the rule of men or the rule of law? According to the classics, the rule of men is superior, or would be, provided they are the right men, the truly wise. The reason is that law as such is limited. Even the wisest legislator cannot anticipate every situation the future may bring. Inevitably, decisions will have to be made in circumstances to which the law does not speak or is inadequate. The judgment of individual men will be necessary. And we would want those individual men to be wise so that they judge and act wisely.
Yet, as we have seen, there do not appear to be any truly wise men. And even if there were, their ability to persuade the unwise is limited, even non-existent. The rule of the wise is eminently impractical. Far more likely than the actual rule of the wise is the rule of the unwise who claim to be wise and who pander to the basest desires of basest elements of society. In other words, the very argument in favor of the rule of the wise can serve demagogues and tyrants.
The practical solution to this practical dilemma is to balance the requirement for wisdom with a requirement for consent. Here is Leo Strauss:
According to the classics, the best way of meeting these two entirely different requirements…would be that a wise legislator frame a code which the citizen body, duly persuaded, freely adopts. That code, which is, as it were, the embodiment of wisdom, must be as little subject to alteration as possible; the rule of law is to take the place of the rule of men, however wise.
It also important to remember that there is a distinction between philosophers, who are not wise but seek wisdom, and the truly wise man who as such is no longer a philosopher, who no longer seeks wisdom but has achieved it. In the ancients’ telling, philosophers are rare but they definitely do exist. Wise men, or perfect sages, may never have existed. Socrates went to his death insisting on his own ignorance—“All I know is that I know nothing”—i.e., he denied being a wise man. Hence Gordon’s use of the phrase “wise philosophers” is itself an oxymoron.
The closest real-world approximation we have to the wise man is then the philosopher. Recall from Plato’s Republic that philosophers do not wish to rule but must be forced to rule. Jaffa summarizes the paradox thus:
Anyone who asserts a right to rule on the basis of his claim to wisdom is accordingly condemned in advance as a charlatan by philosophy itself…. Philosopher-kings are not possible, and genuine philosophers will always prefer a regime of equality under the law.
Jaffa’s student, and my teacher, Tom West draws out the conclusion:
Jaffa is saying that the classical argument for government without consent is refuted by the classics themselves, leaving us with the conclusion that the esoteric teaching, as it were, of the classics is that all men are created equal!
This business of “esotericism” is of course central to Strauss’s teaching and endorsed—sometimes furthered—by nearly all his followers. The argument, in a nutshell, is that many of the greatest thinker-writers present more than one teaching. Esoteric work presents a surface that comports, more or less, with accepted elite and/or public opinion of their time. But they also possess a depth or core at odds with accepted opinion. This core is accessible by “reading between the lines” or paying careful attention to various “mistakes”—errors, omissions, contradictions, misquotations, willful distortions of sources, repetitions with unacknowledged changes, examples that undermine or contradict explicit statements, etc.—in the surface of the text and thinking through what they might mean.
This assertion remains controversial and has been—and still is—a source of much mirth among the enemies of Strauss and his school. Secret writing! I point those interested in iron-clad proof that Strauss was right that esotericism is real to Arthur Melzer’s Philosophy Between the Lines.
Essentially, Gordon accuses Jaffa of esoteric insincerity about the American Founders and the meaning of equality in the Declaration of Independence. In Gordon’s telling, Jaffa says he believes that all men are created equal and that government derives its just powers from the consent of the governed, but he doesn’t really. According to Gordon, Jaffa’s true teaching was “rule by wise philosophers like himself.”
If by this phrase, Gordon simply meant that Jaffa agrees with the classics on the superiority in principle of the rule of the wise over the rule of the unwise, that would be as unobjectionable as it is unilluminating. But the phrase “like himself” makes clear that this is not what Gordon means. This phrase adds two important qualifications, both of which make Gordon’s statement false. First, it more than implies that “rule by wise philosophers” was Jaffa’s practical recommendation for real politics in the real world: to turn over the machinery of the state to Jaffa and people like him. The second implication inevitably follows: that Jaffa rejects the practical requirement, sketched above, to balance the benefits of wisdom with the requirement for consent, or that Jaffa altogether discards the principle of consent.
Gordon here betrays his fundamental misunderstanding of the arguments under consideration and of Jaffa’s writings. Jaffa could not and did not teach “rule by wise philosophers like himself,” first, because he understood the distinction between philosophy and wisdom; second, because he did not believe himself to be either “wise” or a “philosopher”; third, because he was nonetheless wise enough to know that however desirable the rule of the wise might be in principle, it is impossible in practice; fourth because he took seriously—no less seriously than the classics or the American Founders—the justice, dignity and necessity of the requirement for consent.
Gordon’s argument presupposes that wisdom and consent are irreconcilable; indeed, his entire argument stands or falls by the validity of that presupposition. But as we have seen, the ancients no less than the American founders saw that, while the two are in tension, they do not stand in irreconcilable opposition. Is it any surprise, then, that Harry Jaffa—a self-identified follower of both Aristotle and the American founders—believed the same?
The question, then, is not whether the rule of the wise is superior to the rule of the unwise—it obviously is. The question is the practicality of implementing the rule of the wise. Can it be done? At least, can it be done in the way in which Plato appears to recommend in the Republic? We have seen that here the American founders agree with the classical philosophers in concluding: No, it cannot. And Jaffa follows both.
This claim—the impossibility of the best form of government—may seem paradoxical, for how can something impossible be the best? But impossible not does not necessarily mean “non-existent.” A thing may be impossible to achieve in the human realm but still exist in the abstract, in the same way that Plato argues that the form or idea of a thing is no less real—and in his telling more real—than its imperfect real-world copies. Put another way, because an asymptotic curve approaches a given line but never reaches it, we do not therefore deny that the line exists. To borrow words from Lincoln that Jaffa quoted often, America’s Founding principles constitute a
standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere. [Emphasis added.]
The rule of the wise is just such a thing: something to be striven for yet never perfectly attained. Because while wisdom understood as perfect knowledge of the whole does not and likely cannot exist in the mind of any man, nonetheless the whole exists, its parts are knowable, therefore in principle all of its parts are knowable, as is their relation to one another. Thus we need not—must not—abandon wisdom as a standard. We instead must be prudent in the application of that standard.
In the absence of the truly wise, we seek guidance from those who best approximate wisdom. No one knowingly chooses to be ruled by the unwise or the anti-wise, though human beings can be sadly prone to mistaking unwisdom for wisdom. The best practicable form of government, then, is to steer as much wisdom as possible into the operations of the state: to approximate the rule of the wise as closely as possible as often as possible. Or, in words of Jefferson that Jaffa also liked to quote,
there is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talents…. There is also an artificial aristocracy founded on wealth and birth, without either virtue or talents; for with these it would belong to the first class. The natural aristocracy I consider as the most precious gift of nature for the instruction, the trusts, and government of society. And indeed it would have been inconsistent in creation to have formed man for the social state, and not to have provided virtue and wisdom enough to manage the concerns of the society. May we not even say that that form of government is the best which provides the most effectually for a pure selection of these natural aristoi into the offices of government? [Emphasis added.]
We will at certain times do better at this than at others; recall Madison’s warning that “enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm” (Federalist 10). But the qualifier “always” indicates that enlightened statesmen will sometimes be at the helm, and the more they are, the better.
Note also that the passage quoted above on “natural aristoi” was penned by the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence—the very statement of principle that Gordon claims Jaffa esoterically rejects. In fact, all of the textual points that Gordon cites as evidence of Jaffa “contradicting” himself in order to hide his real meaning are easily explained as explications of the inherently contradictory or paradoxical nature of the underlying phenomenon. No recourse to esotericism is necessary. As Strauss himself once put it, “reading between the lines is strictly prohibited in all cases where it would be less exact than not doing so.”
For Gordon’s claim to be true, Jaffa would have to have shrunk from saying aloud what the classics immortalized in print. Indeed, Gordon’s formulation reverses the conclusion sketched above: if the classics’ exoteric or public teaching was the rule of the wise while their secret teaching was government by consent, for Gordon Jaffa’s exoteric teaching is government by consent while his true teaching is the rule of the wise!
East vs. West
I do not know if Gordon is aware of the distinction between the “East Coast” and “West Coast” schools of Straussianism—a distinction or schism which Jaffa more than anyone created. Gordon at any rate does not mention it. But his conclusion would certainly surprise Jaffa’s rivals (and enemies) in the Eastern camp.
Again, to summarize briefly, we have seen that Jaffa finds much continuity between ancient political philosophy and the political theory of the American founding. This is, to say the least, not the view of the East Coast Straussians, who see a fundamental break between ancient and modern thought that carries over into modern political practice and who profess a strong preference for the ancients. They more or less agree with Gordon: one can have wisdom or consent but not both. In their view, the American regime is based simply on consent and dispenses with wisdom; it is therefore “low but solid.” They see Jaffa’s attempt to graft onto the founding higher principles of classical political philosophy as either arising from a misreading of the classics or as a deliberate attempt to attribute to the founding a nobility it lacks—in either case, false and illegitimate. (These are not the only issues dividing East from West, just the most relevant here.)
The East-Coasters would and do reject Jaffa’s claim that “the esoteric teaching of the classics is that all men are created equal.” In their telling, the esoteric teaching of the classics is even more radically anti-democratic than their exoteric teaching in favor of the rule of the wise. Indeed, if anyone today “teaches rule by wise philosophers like [themselves],” it is not Jaffa but the East Coast Straussians! How bewildered they must be to learn from Gordon that Harry Jaffa—a man they always considered philosophically naïve, too political, too invested in America to understand philosophy’s true depths—has been one of them all along!
As a practical matter, one must ask: If indeed Jaffa hid his alleged dismissal of the Founding principles behind a Fort Knox of language supporting those principles, why did he do so? The first reason Strauss gives for the practice of esoteric writing is to avoid persecution. What carries more risk? Standing up for the Founding principles or dismissing them? Strauss himself asked, as early as 1952:
Does this nation in its maturity still cherish the faith in which it was conceived and raised? Does it still hold those “truths to be self-evident”?
The answer, at least among elites, was already—and clearly—“No.” Despite Jaffa’s best efforts, the rejection of natural right—both in its specifically American form and its antecedent philosophic form—has only gained strength and currency in the intervening decades. If Jaffa agreed with that rejection, he had no reason to hide anything. By sticking up for natural right, he was choosing the losing side—certainly in the academy, and even within conservatism. That’s not the way esotericism is typically practiced. To the contrary, the esotericist pretends to side with ruling opinion when really he doesn’t. It might have been necessary to hide one’s rejection of natural right in the America of, say, 1870 or 1920, but not by 1950 and certainly not by 1970!
Religion in a Republic
As to the rest: Gordon denies that the quotation marks he put around “group rights” were intended as “sneer quotes.” Since the context was in the midst of a dismissive caricature of Jaffa’s thought, that seemed a reasonable inference to make. Gordon—despite my asking him directly—still does not say whether he does or doesn’t believe in the concept of group rights as understood by Calhoun and the modern woke left, nor does he say if he thinks I have interpreted that concept correctly or incorrectly. So, it still seems to me that he dismisses my analysis of the destructiveness of “group rights” as only so much Jaffa-ite nonsense. If he doesn’t, I once again invite him to clarify.
Gordon then makes what appears to be an extraordinary admission. He objects to my statement that, in a modern republic governed according the principles of the American founding, only religions that recognize the distinction between civil and religious law are compatible with such government. In his prior piece, he (mis)characterized this thought of mine as follows:
religion is allotted its place, but it is subject to suppression if clergy dare to contradict the “civil religion” of equality that everyone must profess.
I confess I didn’t know then what he had in mind, but it’s a little clearer now. Apparently, for Gordon, if and when adherents of a religion claim that their religious law supersedes civil law—or even deny the legitimacy of civil law and insist that the only valid law is their faith’s religious law—if the civil authority acts to enforce civil law in contravention of what said religious adherents want, that amounts to “suppression.”
Gordon thus has not, to say the least, refuted my contention that for modern republicanism to work, the people no less than the state must recognize the fundamental distinction between civil and religious law. He has rather strengthened that contention. Moreover, he appears to have taken sides—with those who wish to assert the supremacy of religious over civil law.
Gordon reveals his fundamental confusion with these words, again (mis)characterizing my thought: “it is not enough that religious believers refrain from violating the rights of those who reject their religion.” No, actually, that is quite enough. But it’s also compatible with—and nearly identical to—the assertion that only those faiths that recognize the fundamental distinction between civil and religious law are compatible with republican government. To “refrain from violating the rights of those who reject their religion” is an indispensable element of recognizing the distinction between civil and religious law.
In the modern republican conception, religious law governs matters of private conscience and worship that do not impinge on the rights of others, do not obligate non-believers, and are irrelevant to the functioning of the state. The civil law by contrast fundamentally concerns public matters. The civil law may be informed by religious opinion and even law but ultimately is enacted on a rational basis via public deliberation by men of all faiths, and even of no faith. Whether transubstantiation is real or not, whether to keep kosher, and so on, are matters of private import but public indifference. Not murdering or stealing from fellow citizens are inherently public matters—and knowable as such even if they are also forbidden by God’s law.
But as we are all aware, there is an older tradition which rejects any such distinction and which, despite being old, is far from confined to the past. So what of those whose religious law does not recognize any conception of “the rights of those who reject their religion”—or any conception of “rights” at all? Whose religious law condemns as inferior or defective those not professing their own faith? In Gordon’s terms, enforcing the civil law against acts taken in adherence with such religious law is “suppression.”
This is libertarianism taken either to an absurd extreme or to its logical conclusion—perhaps both. Act as illiberally as you want in the name of God, and if the state intervenes, that’s “suppression”! As ever for libertarians, any and all forms of tyranny are OK so long as they’re not performed by the state. Like the capitalist who will sell his hangman the rope from which he is hung, a libertarian will oppose any government restrictions on the scimitar by which he is beheaded.
The rest of Gordon’s reply is hair-splitting, uninteresting even to me, who is often criticized for going on too “long.” So, the important topics having being covered, I will stop there.
If you want to know why libertarianism recedes further into irrelevance by the day, look no further than David Gordon’s attempt to wrestle down the ideas of “Bronze Age Pervert” (a/k/a “BAP”), whose self-published book I reviewed in the Summer 2019 Claremont Review of Books. Gordon’s purported target is BAP himself but he spends far…
If you want to know why libertarianism recedes further into irrelevance by the day, look no further than David Gordon’s attempt to wrestle down the ideas of “Bronze Age Pervert” (a/k/a “BAP”), whose self-published book I reviewed in the Summer 2019 Claremont Review of Books.
Gordon’s purported target is BAP himself but he spends far more time attacking me. And he gets nearly everything wrong. It’s almost as if he is not trying—to read, to understand, to debate, to engage, or anything else. Instead he apparently just wants to settle old scores with my teacher, the late Harry V. Jaffa, who was (rhetorically) ruthless in exposing the blinkered absurdities, unrealities, and inconsistencies of libertarianism. Having been on the receiving end of Jaffa’s critiques myself, I can say that I feel for Gordon. But that doesn’t excuse this mess of a piece.
There is nothing objectionable in Gordon’s first two paragraphs (of nine) simply because they largely consist of quoting me. Since the quotes are accurate, I can’t complain. But as soon as Gordon starts speaking for himself, he goes off the rails.
“How does Anton propose to appeal to youth in a better way than the author of the Bronze Age Mindset?” he asks, apparently not noticing that I haven’t proposed any such thing. I’m well aware of my limitations as a potential pied piper for the disaffected youth to whom BAP appeals. My goal was—and is—less to steal his audience than to understand it. The rest of this paragraph, also being a lengthy quote from me, is also unobjectionable. But Gordon’s attempt to answer, in my voice, a question that he raises but I do not is—to borrow from him—“far from satisfactory.”
Gordon’s fourth paragraph is a simplified account of Jaffa’s teaching, with at least one notable error. “Jaffa,” he writes “teaches rule by wise philosophers like himself, but that is another story.” A story Gordon made up. I have read everything Jaffa ever wrote, most of it more than once, and spent three years talking to him nearly every week (and during the school year almost every day) and I never heard him say anything remotely like this. When he said—and he said it often—that “no one was naturally the ruler of another”—he meant it. He might have been wrong about that, but to make progress in discovering whether or not he was would require a philosophic investigation, something Gordon doesn’t even hint at nor seem interested in.
In Gordon’s fifth and sixth paragraphs, the simplifications devolve into caricature. He apparently believes it is enough to ridicule certain ideas: knowing readers will get the joke and laugh along; the unhip aren’t worth trying to persuade.
Gordon mentions the view that Calhoun believed in “group rights” (sneer quotes his) without passing any sort of judgment. Does Gordon think this assertion is false, that Calhoun did not believe in group rights (or to use fancier language, “concurrent majoritarianism”)? Or does he accept that Calhoun did so believe, and also himself believe that group rights are true and good? The implication from Gordon’s laughter at the notion that group rights could possibly pose theoretical or practical problems is that he must believe one or the other. Knowing what I know about libertarians and their interpretation of 19th century American sectionalism, I suspect that Gordon means to insinuate the latter. Well, why not just say so? I realize that in increasingly woke America, wearing one’s Confederate partisanship on one’s sleeve is more dangerous than it used to be, but there are ways around that. Gordon could simply point to the “concurrent majority” politics championed by minority parties in Europe and trust that his knowing readers will get the hint.
Gordon’s leap from Calhoun to the Nazis is tenuous and crude but since he clearly means to impute that to others (i.e., me) he charges ahead with relish. I suppose there is a link: Hitler, after all, lamented the Confederacy’s loss and slavery’s end, but what that has to do with anything allegedly under consideration here I cannot say.
Gordon then refers to his fourth through sixth paragraphs not merely as an “account” but as my “account.” Of what? That’s not clear either, but he appears to mean my alleged attempt to appeal to the disaffected youth whom, in my BAP review, I say are no longer attracted to conventional conservatism. The problem with Gordon’s “account” of my ideas is that I nowhere say what he attributes to me. Not that I disbelieve all of it. But were I setting down in my own words what I really believe on these subjects, I would have been much clearer and more precise.
Gordon points to my little book After the Flight 93 Election but doesn’t appear to have read it. He thrice refers to my “care” and “skill” as a reader, compliments obviously intended to be backhanded, but he would do well to take a little more care in reading himself. After the Flight 93 Election mentions the Civil War and World War II once each, in passing, with no attempt at analysis or evaluation. It cites neither Jaffa nor Jefferson nor Eisenhower—all figures said to be central to my “account.” Churchill is mentioned once, as the type of magnanimous statesman I personally prefer, but not to make any point about the war or anything else.
After the Flight 93 Election is, in fact, not a history book at all—except insofar as it offers a philosophic history of how leftism came to take over American intellectual and political life. I do discuss Calhoun, whom I consider the greatest spokesman for the first of what I call three distinctly American attacks on what I term “the American solution”—that is, the American Founders’ solution to political problems that have bedeviled mankind since the Fall. I do indeed attribute the idea of “group rights” to Calhoun’s defense of “states’ rights”—or to be more specific, to his assertion that certain minority groups should have the power to overturn majority will even when it has been exercised lawfully and constitutionally and contravenes no minority rights. I then argue that Calhoun’s position has, in an ironic twist, been taken up by the leftists of our time, many of whom (to say the least) Calhoun would not have invited in for tea.
As noted, if Gordon thinks this was not Calhoun’s position, he should say so. If he thinks it was, but that Calhoun was right and I am wrong, he should say why. If he sees no connection between Calhounian group rights and our modern counterpart, he should explain how they are so different. If that is in fact what he belives, I would further ask him to explain why the Calhounian version can save us in 2019, and how it can be victorious over its woke competition.
Rights and Wrongs
Gordon says nothing about the other two strands of leftism that I analyze, nor anything about my analysis of how the three strands came together to form the leftism under which we now live. It seems to me far more urgent to understand that and start thinking about how to defeat or escape it than to settle old scores with the dead, but we apparently have different priorities.
Gordon’s article—quite silly up to this point—then manages to do what I would have thought was impossible: get dumber. He says that I offer to the youth “a powerful central state that destroys the rights of states and local communities, doing so in merciless wars like the Civil War and World War II.” Silly me, I had been unaware that World War II destroyed any communities here at home. That must be what he means, right?
In any event, this is not the place to refight either war, so I will leave it at the fact that if I could go back in time to when the federal government’s power, size and scope were limited to the parameters of (say) 1870 or 1950, I would be tempted (with a few notable exceptions)—and I bet Gordon would as well. “War is the health of state,” but what Gordon seems to deny, or not know, is that the American state used to recede back toward, if not always fully “to,” its prewar size and scope once victory had been won. It doesn’t any more in part because of the stranglehold of the leftism that my book describes.
All of this is moot, though, because I nowhere praise a “powerful central state” and I quite explicitly decry overweening state power that destroys local communities. Though I may say for the record that I don’t believe in the concept of “states’ rights,” not because I don’t sympathize with state governments being bullied by the feds—I do—but because the concept is inherently nonsensical. If a “right”—an inherently abstract thing if ever there was one—may be said to exist, the only coherent way its existence can be logically demonstrated is if one accepts that only human beings have rights. Other beings—whether animal, vegetable, mineral or conceptual—do not and cannot. I explain why in my book. I learned this argument from the early modern political philosophers and the American founders via Jaffa and others. I’ve never seen an even remotely convincing alternative conception of “rights” that are not the unique possession of man as a reasoning being subject to the moral law, created in God’s image. I doubt Gordon can offer such an alternative, but if he does, I promise to read it.
I find it frustrating, but amusing, to see confirmed once again a great libertarian blind spot. The only way their conception of a just politics—maximum individual freedom, minimum state power—makes sense at all is if you assume that individual human rights are real. Yet libertarians often attack the idea of individual rights as an engine of state power even as they stridently advocate for investing rights in states! I have never quite grasped why ideologues hostile to state power wish to grant rights to their great boogey-man. Nor will it do to say “we are for states’ rights, not federal rights.” What justifies the distinction—the limiting principle—in either theory or practice? Once one asserts that government qua government can have “rights,” by what argument or means can one stop the federal government—which is so much more powerful than all the states put together—from claiming that it, too, has rights? True, the federal behemoth does not formally so claim. But it acts like it does, and has for a long time.
A better, truer conception—both theoretically and practically—is to accept that only human beings have rights; no government—state, local, federal or central—ever can, or ever has. The purpose of government is to act to secure our individual natural rights, and a properly limited government will also be prevented from acting in contravention of our rights. That is not, admittedly, the government that we have today but it is the government we used to have and that I would like to have again. So this business about me advocating “a powerful central state” is just so much nonsense.
Let me further say before leaving this topic that Gordon can get one of the things he wants, and that I also want—greater latitude for state governments vis-à-vis the all-powerful feds—only through a return to the conception of rights that I have sketched. For the rights that he (and I) wish to vindicate from federal intrusion are fundamentally individual rights, the rights of the people of the several states, not the alleged “rights” of the states themselves—which, again, do not even exist.
Gordon further says that I find “some value in federalism, but it must be strictly subordinate to the central government’s efforts to enforce equality.” The accuracy of this depends on what Gordon means. Does he mean that I favor a federal government strong enough to do its job, to carry out its enumerated powers? Guilty. Or does he mean that I want a federal government that acts as a national, intrusive busybody, imposing one newly-discovered “right” after another on a beleaguered people without their consent? That’s the government we have now, and I’m agin’ it.
I suppose it all comes down to the meaning of “equality” in that sentence. Should state power be used to redress actual violations of citizens’ equal natural rights? Yes. Of course. That’s what the state—any state—is for. Should state power be used to impose “equality” for the purpose of correcting all past and present, real and alleged, “injustice”? No. These two conceptions are separated by a vast gulf and the former does not inherently lead to the latter. It has in our case, to be sure, but it didn’t have to. And, again, I explain (or try to) how that happened in my book.
Weak State, False Promises
Gordon goes on to say that in my “account,” “religion is allotted its place, but it is subject to suppression if clergy dare to contradict the ‘civil religion’ of equality that everyone must profess.” I can’t even guess which of my words he twisted to arrive at this travesty, nor can I discern what it’s supposed to mean, so let’s just keep going.
“Is this what young people want? Surely they want to be left alone so that they can raise their families in peace. Surely they wish to practice their own religion without supervision by the state.” Surely some of them do. And for those who want these things, I want them for them. But, first, Gordon has not reckoned with the extent (it is not small) to which swaths of the youth have simply given up any hope of ever having a family. Second, he seems to vastly overestimate the residual religiosity of the young.
But even if this were not the case, it’s laughable to think that libertarianism has anything to offer these disaffected youth. What tenets of libertarianism are actually conducive to family formation? Outsourcing, free trade and high immigration that kills jobs, decimates industries and pounds down wages? Endless deference to wealth concentration and corporate power? As long as it’s not the government! Legal weed, gambling and prostitution to while away a life full of pointlessness and ennui? And what does libertarianism have to offer the genuinely religious, who actually care about moral virtue and don’t believe that consent alone grants moral legitimacy to every vice?
Similarly, why is a “weak state” that does little or nothing for anyone better for these disaffected youth than a strong state that actually does its job? You know, like enforce the border, attack drug cartels, redress trade imbalances, and encourage domestic investment and manufacturing, among other things? All anathema to libertarians, I understand, but it’s bit rich for Gordon to turn around and praise “hearth and home” when his ideology opposes any and all measures that might strengthen either and openly advocates for mass anesthetization.
Gordon upbraids me for not supporting “a consistent policy of nonintervention.” Of course I don’t; only a fool would. For such “consistency” is not possible in foreign affairs, which are by their very nature fluid. Interests are consistent over time (though not forever) but the policies that serve those interests must vary with circumstances. Sometimes intervention is necessary and beneficial, as it was in 1991. Other times it is foolish and harmful, as it was in 2003. As a general matter, I think the United States has been too interventionist for too long, with too little gained and far too much lost. The necessary corrective is for our foreign policy to swing back toward non-, or less, intervention. But that doesn’t mean no intervention, ever. Events must be taken as they come, as they are, on a case-by-case basis. We cannot rule out the potential necessity of intervention because we don’t know what the future holds. “A consistent policy of nonintervention” is childish and would, sooner or later, be upended by what Solzhenitsyn called “the pitiless crowbar of events.”
Gordon asserts that I have “an essentially rhetorical conception of philosophy.” I don’t know what this means. If it is supposed to mean that, like the sophists, I believe that words always, and deeds never, move the world, then he is wrong. If it means something else, he should explain. He further says that I lack “skill in philosophical argument.” Perhaps. But I remind him that the very first sentence of the new essay in my little book reads: “What follows is not a philosophical treatise; it is a political argument.” Once again, a little more care in reading would have served Gordon well. I shall leave to others to judge how convincing my political argument is; Gordon evidently found it wanting. But I also note that I cannot judge his own “skill in philosophical argument” because he didn’t make any.
A Terminal Ideology
Gordon closes by saying that neither I nor BAP “can effectively appeal to those fed up with the Leviathan State.” Once again, I will leave to others to judge the appeal of my work. I will also let BAP speak for himself—he has promised on Twitter to reply to my review and I eagerly await that response. I will say this, however, purely as a factual matter: Gordon is wrong that BAP has found no appeal with those opposed to the Leviathan. He absolutely has. The purpose of my review was to inform conservatives of this phenomenon and try to begin to explain what it means.
But even if Gordon were right that BAP held no appeal to those fed up with Leviathan, he commits an own-goal by including the qualifier “effectively” in that charge. For, far more certain than anything else I’ve alleged in this response is the fact that libertarianism offers no “effective” response to anything—not to the Leviathan or anything else. Libertarianism in fact the most singularly ineffective movement of the last 50 years, ineffective at everything it tries to do: win arguments, win votes, win elections, make policy, govern, appeal to a share of the population beyond the low single digits. It’s nothing more than an ideology in the strict sense, which is to say, a simplified, degraded, popularized shadow of philosophy, impractical, utopian, obsessed with purity of doctrine and blind to the complexities and realties of the world.
The Leviathan is a real problem—arguably the problem of our time. BAP and I, each in our own ways—often in disagreement with and opposition to one another—are exploring potential solutions to the problem. One thing on which I am confident we both agree: libertarianism offers nothing beyond the “principled” self-satisfaction of “knowing” that one is “consistent” and right. It must be an enjoyable feeling, and I will leave David Gordon to enjoy it.
Michael Anton is a lecturer and research fellow at Hillsdale College’s Washington, D.C. campus, a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute, and a former national security official in the Trump administration. He is the author of The Stakes: America at the Point of No Return.