Thoughts on “Post Liberalism” (I)

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The political project of the “post liberals” is not my own. Many of their critiques of contemporary American life and politics mirror what I have written; many of their suggestions for the future of the American right I easily endorse. 1But the grander their essays, the broader their harangues, the less convincing their case becomes.

             I suspect our most important divide concerns our understanding of history. Political programs, especially conservative political programs, ground themselves in a historical account of decline. The flaws, follies, errors, and evils that bedevil the body politic have their origins in some point in the past. Before this origin point society was happier, healthier, stronger, more functional, more virtuous, more beautiful, or filled with greater glory than is currently so; it is to this moment in the past that the conservative looks for inspiration and guidance for the future. It is not just conservatives who do this—see the general liberal fascination with the economic order before the deregulation spree that began in the ‘70s—but no conservative can avoid it. A theory of the fall is the keystone of any coherent conservative social philosophy.

1

For example, I disagree with nothing in Adrian Vermeule, “The Party of Nature,” Post Liberal Order (7 December 2021).

              The enemy of America’s social conservatives, both the self-declared “post liberals” and the more standard vanilla variety ushered into the core of Republican politics in the ‘70s and ‘80s, is what sociologist Robert Bellah called “expressive individualism.”2The ethic of the expressive individualist is captured by justice Anthony Kennedy’s declaration that the Supreme Court must recognize that “at the heart of liberty” was a new sort of human right, a “right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.“ 3   In a recent book Carl Trueman contrasts this inward, therapeutic vision of human purpose with the healthier ethics of earlier eras:

2

Robert Bellah, Richard Madsen, William Sullivan, Ann Swidler, Steven Tipton, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkley: University of California Press, 1985), 32.

In the worlds of political, religious, and economic man, commitment was [once] outwardly directed to those communal beliefs, practices, and institutions that were bigger than the individual and in which the individual, to the degree that he or she conformed to or cooperated with them, found meaning. The ancient Athenian was committed to the assembly, the medieval Christian to his church, and the twentieth-century factory worker to his trade union and working man’s club. All of them found their purpose and well-being by being committed to something outside themselves. In the world of psychological man, however, the commitment is first and foremost to the self and is inwardly directed. Thus, the order is reversed. Outward institutions become in effect the servants of the individual and her sense of inner well-being.

In fact, I might press this point further: institutions cease to be places for the formation of individuals via their schooling in the various practices and disciplines that allow them to take. their place in society. Instead, they become platforms for performance, where individuals are allowed to be their authentic selves precisely because they are able to give expression to who they are “inside.” …For such selves in such a world, institutions such as schools and churches are places where one goes to perform, not to be formed -or, perhaps better, where one goes to be formed by Performing.… This could also be described as the triumph of expressive individualism.

…If education is to allow the individual simply to be himself, unhindered by outward pressure to conform to any greater reality, then the individual is king. He can be whoever he wants to be. And rejecting the notion of any external authority or meaning to which education is to conform, the individual simply makes himself the creator of any meaning that there might be. So-called “external” or “objective” truths are then simply constructs designed by the powerful to intimidate and to harm the weak. overthrowing them-and thus overthrowing the notion that there is a great reality to which we are all accountable, whether that of the polis, of some religion, or of the economy-becomes the central purpose of educational institutions. They are not to be places to form or to transform but rather places where students can perform. The triumph of the therapeutic represents the advent of the expressive individual as the normative type of human being and of the relativizing of all meaning and truth to personal taste. 4

              The ethic of expressive individualism, continues Trumean in an essay published by the Heritage Foundation, is thus responsible for all manner of current controversies in the cultural war, “including abortion, pornography, the ethics of life and death, radical racial politics, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion.”5

5

Carl Trueman, “How Expressive Individualism Threatens Civil Society,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 3615, (Washington DC: Heritage Foundation), 27 May 2021.

              None of this is particularly novel, though the exact terminology used has shifted somewhat over the last few decades. Trueman articulates the essence of the rightward critique of modern American culture since the ascendance of the cultural conservatives in the ‘70s. The standard narrative finds the origin of these horrors in the social revolutions of the ‘60s. Postmodernism, the sexual revolution, and the intellectual rebellion of the “New Left” mark America’s fall from Eden; both the learned tomes and the political agitation authored by social conservatives since then have been one long, failed attempt to roll back the cultural developments of that decade.


              In the face of this narrative, the post liberals are innovative: they place cherubim and flaming sword far further back in the Western past. For them, the malaise of late 20th century and early 21st century life is the logical endpoint of innovations in theory and faith that occurred centuries earlier. All post liberals treat Enlightenment liberalism as the original sin of the American project. The Catholic post-liberals tend to go further still, finding the origin of all our ills in the Reformation assault on Church authority; some of the secularists go even further afield, condemning, as Nietzsche did before them, late antiquity’s choice to elevate the private religion of the weak and meek over the classical urge to glorify excellence and strength in the public domain.

              The standard attack on these post-liberal sorts is to poke fun at the irony of young conservatives attempting to secede from a culture of expressive individualism by rebelliously expressing their individual devotion to trad subcultures. But all of that distracts from more serious problems with the post liberal pose.  Post-liberalism faults the wrong fall. In this, the post liberals are not so different from the old fusionists they rebel against. Neither has found the actual origin point for the evils that ail us. Neither stripping our culture of the ideas of Ms. magazine or the ideas of James Madison could end the despair and anomie of American life. The problem is bigger than political philosophy.

              These reflections were spurred by listening to an episode of Doug Metzger’s podcast, Literature and History. Literature and History, the most excellent narrative podcast I have yet encountered, proclaims itself a march through the entirety of “Anglophone literature and its roots.” Those roots run deep. The podcast begins with Epic of Gilgamesh and the Enuma Elish, while its most recent episode—the 96th—has only gotten to 5th century Rome. Episodes alternate between dramatic retellings of famous works like Oedipus Rex and wide-ranging historical lectures that provide the context needed to understand and appreciate them. This week I finished listening to an episode titled “Hellenism and the Birth of the Self.6 The parallels between the Hellenistic trends Metzger describes and the problems of the current moment are worth pondering.

6

Doug Metzer, “Hellenism and the Birth of the Self,” Literature and History, podcast episode (released fall 2019). Transcript here.

              Metzger’s portrayal of the Hellenistic Era is compelling though conventional. Destroyed: a world of cohesive, tradition bound city states whose citizens were joined together by shared loyalty to a polity whose fate was set by these same citizens’ own sweat. In its place: a tangle of marauding empires whose political outcomes were decided by the machinations of the distant few in the despot’s court or the mercenary’s camp. Older religious traditions, which were grounded in communal, role-based performance of ritual acts intended to secure the favor of geographically or ethnically affiliated deities, fared little better. Their fall is understandable. The old covenants failed in this new era. Communal devotion protected no one from conquest. The conquered were forced, as slaves or conscripts, to dwell as strangers in strange lands.

              The Hellenistic Era was an age of strangers. The polyglot cosmopolises of the era drew in merchants from faraway shores and mercenaries from the far reaches of empire. Left behind were the men who once had honored roles as first citizens and chief priests. Men who led small and bounded worlds now found themselves the playthings of inconstant forces operating on imperial scales.

              The intellectual response to these developments was to turn inward. In place of religions focused on public performance and communal covenants rose cults focused narrowly on the personal relationship between individual believers and their deity of choice. These new faiths were focused less on public goods than private salvation—salvation expressed either as material blessings in this life, or eternal rewards in the next. Philosophy too underwent a gradual transformation. No longer did great thinkers squabble over the form of the ideal polity, or ask what political communities must do to foster good character in their citizens. Hellenistic philosophy was not focused on citizens. It was obsessed with individual ethics, not collective politics. The ethicists of these centuries sought rules of conduct that could be followed regardless of the seeker’s social station or the local political situation. Like the new religions, their focus was on the soul within a man, not the community of men outside him.

              Thus the popularity of Stoicism and Epicureanism. Thus the worship of Isis, Dionysus, and Cybele. Thus the spread of the Pythagorean and Orphic Cults. Thus the transformations of Second Temple Judaism. To explain this all Metzger quotes historian Peter Green: “The record we have… speaks with some eloquence to the dilemmas that faced a thinking man in a world where, no longer master of his fate, he had to content himself with being, in one way or another, captain of his soul.”7

7

Peter Green, The Hellenistic Age (New York: Random House Publishing Group, 2008). Kindle location 545 quoted in Metzer, “Hellenism and the Birth of the Self.”

              Masters of fate and captains of souls. That is the choice. Humans find meaning in agency. We wish to act, not only to be acted upon. Those denied all chance to meaningfully shape the form and fate of their community—we once referred to this as “self government”—will seek agency elsewhere. As Hellenes deprived of communal independence refocused their souls on individualist self-cultivation, so late 20th and early 21st century Americans, long denied a meaningful role in governing their society, instead seek meaning and esteem in the expression of their identities.  

              To understand this point, consider the situation faced by the median 19th century American man in a state like Minnesota or California.8 He lived in a social, economic, and political world that was largely fashioned by his own hands. Be he rich or poor, he lived as his own master, independent from the domination of the boss or the meddling of the manager. If he had settled near the frontier, he would had been involved in creating and manning the government bodies that regulated aspects of communal life—the school board, the township, the sheriff’s department, and so forth. Even if he was not a frontiersman, he was a regular attendee at the town, city, county and even state government meetings most relevant to his family’s concerns. Between his wife and he, his family participated in a half dozen committees, chapters, societies, associations, councils, and congregations; these associations were created to solve problems as wide ranging as the coordination of the local irrigation system to the intellectual edification of the township. To these formal institutions we may add dozens of less formal, task-based gatherings, when Americans rallied together to raise barns, throw sociables, and everything in between. “In the United States,” one astounded foreigner observed, “there is nothing the human will despairs of attaining through the free action of the combined power of individuals.” 9

8

The next three paragraphs draws on numerous books, but the best comprehensive account of the transition I describe remains Robert Wiehbe, Self Rule: A Cultural History of American Democracy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996). Christopher Lasch commits to a similar narrative in his essay “Opportunity in the Promised Land”, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy. (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1993), pp. 50-80.

For more books on this topic, see my reading list “Pining For Democracy.”

9

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. Gerald Bevan (New York: Penguin, 2003), 220.

              This would change between the 1880s and the 1940s. Over those decades the median American transitioned from a life of autonomy and self-government to a life of dependence or domination. Now gainful employment meant working for a wage under the eye of an overseer. Eventually, the commands of the foreman were augmented by the gentler web of routines, rules and procedures decided in faraway boardrooms. Specialists and executives—specialists and executives our median American had never met, and never would—were now deciding the patterns of daily life for millions of their countrymen. Working in this corporate world, an unusually honest executive admits, means “shuffling from one day to the next in a low grade depression governed by an immense body of obscure rules. There [are] rules about everything, but most [are] invisible until you collide with them.”10
             
              As went the working world, so went the political. A political culture once focused on affairs close to home—where interventions by individual citizens might matter—was superseded by a vast federal apparatus. Its regulations were baroque and confusing; its regulators lived at imperial distance from lives they regulated. With each passing decade another domain of knowledge—law, industry, science, commerce, and even culture—would be taken out of the hands of the every man and walled off as the preserve of credentialed expertise. By the time the ‘50s rolled around, ours was a nation of managers and managed. Americans were masters of their fate no more.

10

G.J. Meyers, Executive Blues: Down and Out in Corporate America (New York: Random House, 1996), 190.

              It is no accident that the culture wars exploded only after the first generation born under bureaucracy came of age. The New Left was a rebellion against life under management. But the rebels had no experience with practical problem solving, strategy, or other skills of self government. The fathers had not passed the American patrimony on to their children. 11 The new leftists (and their counterculture foils, the boomer generation of touchy feely evangelicals) 12 sunk their quest for meaning into the only place left open to them: the existential exploration of identity and the loud expression of their individual values. Thus the selfish egoism of the boomers was less a result of wayward heresies whispered in the 1970s—much less the 1670s—than it was the obvious end game of bureaucratized life.

              Younger conservatives are three generations removed from an America whose citizens felt like they were masters of their fate. We, our parents, and our parents’ parents, have never lived outside the Kafkaesque. It is not surprising for the young conservative men that fill the post-liberal ranks to feel that this environment is degrading and emasculating. It is! It denies them—and almost all of us—any meaningful role shaping or leading their own communities.  

But if we recognizes this as the true sickness that ails us… well, the post liberal narrative rings lackluster. It is not Locke or Jefferson that has robbed our lives of significance. The post liberals could drive the Woke out of public life, annul the words “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” from the public memory, and re-Christianize the entire public sphere, but the essential problem would remain.  As long as America is divided between managers and the managed; as long as her culture honors distinctions between experts and the average; and as long as her citizens’ daily lives are decided by rules and regulations made by bureaucrats living far away, then the malaise, atomization, and enervation that the post liberals mourn will continue apace.

11

For a parallel account of the ’60s counterculture and a surprisingly similar diagnoses of the central problems facing American men, see Susan Faludi, Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man (New York: William and Morrow, 1999); for more analysis on the strategic incoherence of the New Left Lawrence Freedman, Strategy: A History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 366-391.

12

See Brink Lindsey, Age of Abundance: How Prosperity Transformed American Politics and Society (2007) for more on this comparison.

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67 Comments

Scattershot and not particularly well organized thoughts as I began writing this just before midnight.

First and foremost, beautiful writing as always. That’s one of the things I greatly appreciate about this blog in itself.

Something which struck me reading your description of the transition from self-governed to manager/managed was the high degree of overlap with Marx’s theory of alienation, which I happened to read about around this time last year.

cf.

> “He lived in a social, economic, and political world that was largely fashioned by his own hands. Be he rich or poor, he lived as his own master, independent from the domination of the boss or the meddling of the manager…This would change between the 1880s and the 1940s. Over those decades the median American transitioned from a life of autonomy and self-government to a life of dependence or domination. Now gainful employment meant working for a wage under the eye of an overseer.”

> The animal is immediately one with its life activity. It does not distinguish itself from it. It is its life activity. Man makes his life activity itself the object of his will and of his consciousness…Estranged labor reverses the relationship, so that it is just because man is a conscious being that he makes his life activity, his essential being, a mere means to his existence…Similarly, in degrading spontaneous, free activity to a means, estranged labor makes man’s species-life a means to his physical existence…Estranged labor turns thus Man’s species-being, both nature and his spiritual species-property, into a being alien to him, into a means of his individual existence. It estranges from man his own body, as well as external nature and his spiritual aspect, his human aspect.

which is to say, the commodification of labor, both in itself and in the patterns of work it encourages, removes the spiritual reward from “what you fashion with your own hands”; it reflects “the subjugation of man by his own works, which have assumed the guise of independent things” by “factors operating independently of human will.”

obviously, there is a critical difference in the two passages, the first reflects pining for liberty of the spirit from outside *rule*, the second advances the notion that the commodification of natural human activity is in itself degrading to human nature. One might sympathize with one or the other while yet strongly disagreeing with its ultimate conclusion: I, no Marxist, certainly understand the “feeling” that commodification of labor separates humans from the natural satisfaction of “fashioning something with your own hands” without having much enthusiasm for the destructiveness of attempts to abolish systems of commodity labor – or, for that matter, the fantasy of retvrn to a vaguely defined historical utopia.

Yet, I am similarly skeptical of the long-term viability of societies that seek to abolish their own leviathans precisely because it renders them horribly vulnerable to the army of Macedonians descending from the mountains, casually sweeping aside or absorbing individual poleis. Perhaps the most unsettling conclusion is that there *is* no long-term stable state that is not one or both of the alienation of estranged labor and the alienation of outside rule.

Vingilótë–

Marx’s work on alienation was likely his wisest. But Marx sees a distinction between the economic structure and the civic and political superstructure. The libertarian, in contrast, draws a red line between the state and that outside of it. From the perspective of any given individual it is a distinction without a difference. Red tape is a soul sucking experience, be it experienced with a government office or an insurance firm. Being controlled by far away records is degrading, be those records credit scores, dating apps, or government papers. My attitude, I think, is what you get when you take traditional small-r republican hostility to domination and apply it across social life..

I guess the more communal Church focused society of the Middle Ages was due to the lack of imperial power and trade, and the more internally focused late Medieval religious movements (Bretheren of the Free Spirit, the Reformation) was in response to commerce picking back up? If a communal organization of society is contingent on a lack of trade, mobility, and powerful states then I doubt it’s ever coming back. Not sure if my analogy holds though, Late Medieval religious movements – especially the Low Countries ones – were pretty communal (but not necessarily focused people’s birth communities).

It is no accident that the culture wars exploded only after the first generation born under bureaucracy came of age.

Qua Gellner, isn’t the gating of the material ‘good life’ behind replaceable parts and replaceable labour historically over by the time Agraria gives way to Industria? The revolution is in 1848, not in 1968.

Across the long 19th century, it’s already the case that a locally alien set of bureaucratic norms and rules increasingly govern daily life. But the solution undertaken is to pick, and then rapidly assimilate into, an imagined national community – to find a place in the national rather than to defend the local. Local elites are enthusiastic supporters of this assimilation, if anything (tragedy occurring when there are dueling sets of such local elites). No-holds-barred culture-war contest then occurs at a national level (j’accuse…!).

What changes in 1968 is the mass availability of the subculture – instead of voice and loyalty, it is now readily possible for this impulse to exit: one is not an elder in one’s village, true, nor a delegate to the assembly of one’s nation – but one can be a respected leader in a community of one’s own; the social payoff is easily available without also having to be responsible for the local road sinking fund. Albeit this community is increasingly founded not on something that lasts centuries (like local family generations) or even decades (like local economic niches) but perhaps just years or even months: elements of media and consumer culture. The effort invested in achieving respect and mastery is increasingly put to build something inherently ephemeral. Bowl alone if one wills, but it’s because one became a devotee of bowling in a century when such diversions have rapid rises and recessions.

This ‘exit option’ lurks patient but everpresent. The New Left could briefly stage a nationwide general strike and send De Gaulle fleeing to Germany, but it could also then spend a few decades indulging in esoteric intellectual games; where did its energy go? Is the illiberal revival enabled by the new online subcultural arena fundamentally any different?

Really interesting observation. I’d like to build on it by proposing that the idea of the ‘global village’ and easy access to the past challenges the individual’s sense of social place.

When communities were small, most people could have a role: blacksmith, farrier, priest, farmer etc. You could have status for being the ‘best’ in your community, the fairest, the most talented – and so on. But in a globally connected culture, that status is devalued. Your community’s clever, skilful, or beautiful person is now compared with those in other communities, in bigger communities, even the global community.

Would you like to be a writer? You now compete for status not just with a handful of local peers, but with hundreds of thousands, globally. And with Homer, Shakespeare, Pratchett… The risks of failure, of humiliation, are vastly multiplied. Your sense of worth is now calibrated against standards that 99% can never meet.

Our globally connected culture seems hard-wired to increase the scarcity of status. A logical response is to re-create the villages – as sub-cultures: places where status is cheaper and more readily available.

The other thing that changed … and more in the 1980s than 1968 is the scope.

People have been subject to arbitrary decisions of management in their work roles for a long time, but now, with massive industry consolidation and centralization, it is also happening to people in their private life as consumers.

You find a problem with your phone or your software, or an error in your bank statement, or your internet or TV is not working, or your flight has been cancelled … whatever.

Suddenly, rather than talking to a customer service representative who can address your problem you are launched into a Kafkaeque process of searching through “support databases”, navigating telephone IVR menus, sending “message requests”, being passed on to ever different support group or chats, and then advised that the person you had finally reached has no authority to deal with your problem and cannot refer you to anyone that does.

THAT is what pits atomized individuals against the leviathan (and in this case a leviathan that delegated much of its power to the rent seeking private equity or similar sector) and totally alienates people from society.

Libertarians have always been a tiny and uninfluential minority, except for a portion of the 1990s and 2000s.

One point of curiosity: if the Hellenistic Mediterranean and the post-War West both have cultures of expressive individualism, are there others that fit this?

Looking at Asian cultures through the lens of Buddhist Modernism, I find that for much of the Western post-Romantic Buddhism there are few precedents in the Indian tradition with its focus on renunciation of the world and collective monastic action, but there is definitely something more substantial in turn of the millenium East Asia. Tang and Song China has a lot of artists and philosophers who, although on the face of it are committed to a institutionally directed Confucian ideal, are writing expressive poetry about their personal emotions signed under their own name and often talking about retreating from the busyness of the world into the goodness of nature, and self-cultivation. Neoconfucians even have a bit of disenchantment in their commitment to rituals for Heaven. I’d be curious for more takes on literati culture in relationship to individualism, since my reading is still shallow.

I find it convincing that the bureaucratization of society has something to do with the widespread adoption of expressive individualism (which I think is in agreement with Weber and Taylor), but it does not seem sufficient. Conservatives seem to point to Medieval Europe as a society where everyone knew their collective place, but were people really not alienated by the obvious corruption of the church and politics being taken totally out of their hands by complicated dynastic squabbles?

Very thought provoking post, interested to see where part II goes.

Ethan–

I would not describe the Hellenes as expressive individualists. Just individualists. A notable difference between the Cultists/Stoics is that there was less public performance of their belief system–in the early centuries many were essentially secret affairs. Likewise, they did not see morality as something they chose or developed themselves. They were interested in Kennedy’s “mysteries of life,” but that mystery was not some each chose to define in his or her own way. A Stoic seeking to align his life with the logos was on an individualist path–but not a path he invented, nor one he would have conceptualized as being fulfilled by self expression.

The similarities are found in the individual nature of their task, the competing options Hellenes could “shop” between, and the lack of control Hellenes had over their communities.

I have also been pondering Asian parallels, but am not ready to commit to any yet. Certainly the Confucians complained about the Buddhists in similar terms, and there is something to that comparison.

I think this is spot on. The Hellenistic world experiences a “nova effect” of different belief systems like how Taylor describes secularity but it is not yet expressive individualism.

This sounds very similar to Marx’s notion of alienation. He, of course, blamed class. And one can see the “Century of the Self” (per Adam Curtis: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eJ3RzGoQC4s) as a reaction to capitalist objectification.

I’m interested in how your critique differs from Marx’s, given that he would likely have agreed with the value of decentralised power, and the idea of the community-minded citizen rather than the self-obsessed individual?

Much of what Marx observed rings true, especially his work on alienation. What he did not understand (but Kafka did) is that the use of state power to smash up alienating work patterns creates a leviathan far more alienating than the marketplace ever was.

I love this line of analysis! It is much more materialist (i.e. the new way of life creates new ideas and fashions to cope with it, rather than new ideas and fashions coming from…a post-modernist conspiracy to degrade American culture out of spite?…that finds fertile ground and resonates with people because?…) I’m glad you seem to notice why a materialist (dare I say Marxist!) explanation like this explains so much more.

But, given that you don’t like Marx’s solution (even if borrowing some of his diagnosis), does this point towards “distributism” or something similar as a way to thread between the Scylla of all-powerful Capital and the Charibdys of an all-powerful State? And how to make distributism materially strong and productive enough to compete with foreign Capital/States? A social arrangement may very well be pleasant, but if it cannot survive diplomatic/military “natural selection,” it will come to a grim end under the heel of a conqueror. To me, this has always seemed to be the Achilles’ Heel of distributism. Yes, small-scale simple commodity production performed mostly by self-employed owners and temporary apprencentices, in a context of authentic participation in local govt., would be nice. Think of the inherent appeal of escapist games like “Stardew Valley” that essentially model this way of life. And yet, how would an entire nation construed in such a way defend itself? How would the Amish defend themselves if it was up to them to fend off a Chinese or Russian invasion, for example?

My view on intellectual change is a bit Darwinian. Perhaps there was a post modern conspiracy to corrupt the American mind. That can explain where the ideas came from but not why they resonated and spread. At any given time there are dozens and dozens of weird political and social philosophies floating just out there in the intellectual space. Political events and economic shifts can make those ideas more “adaptive” than they were before, and suddenly they rise up. (The Cults of the Hellenestic Age are a good case in point–the Dionysus Cult was 1 century old, at least, by the time Alexander began his conquest. It was already there. The changes of the Hellenistic age just gave it the chance to grow and spread.

I’m curious if you’ve read the work of the “neolithic conservative” thinkers popular during the heyday of the New Left. Ivan Illich for example-his critique of Radical Monopoly aligns quite well with the ideas you lay out.

It seems like we’re targeting a pretty narrow window here: we want to get before the point where almost anyone with an education is a salaried worker in a larger organization, but we also can’t go back into subsistence agriculture. To form committees like the sort you describe, it seems like you’d need a fair bit of economic and social capital, as well as freedom from the domination of local robber barons and crushing feudal tax dues.

To reframe the problem, it’s strange to me that the stage of life you’re describing would always be noted by European observers as a specifically American phenomenon. At the very least Europeans didn’t seem to think this was a tradition that they had lost in recent memory.

I would submit that the culture you describe is essentially the culture of the frontier. The basic economic model is that skilled laborers or simply ambitious men settle in new towns with their families, hoping to escape the economic conditions of the world they migrated from. The need for committees to decide everything would then spring from the fact that there was no ancient tradition or appointed magistrate to deal with the problem– if you were meeting to discuss coordinating irrigation systems, it would be because you’re digging new irration trenches and tilling new land. It goes back to your commentary on Andreeson’s time to build: we exist in structures and organizations largely built anew by the generation your essay is an homage to.

To me this raises two worries:

One is that the most convincing accounts of the deep history of liberalism start at exactly this point. Giving rights and privileges to the middle class was originally a way to attract settlers to your project, whether it’s a German settlement in the Baltic or a colony in the Americas. For example, Charles I, hardly a republican, granted a charter of rights to the colony of New York, back when he was the Duke of York, in order to raise its anemic rate of attracting settlers. The advent of liberalism happens in these frontier places where ambitious people were given rights and the ability to reorganize society outside of the purview of aristocratic or imperial control.

The second is that the frontier society is basically a bubble. Few societies sustain a frontier economy for very long, and at some point people, families, and institutions gain entrenched power. The normal solution to this is to just leave for a new frontier, but absent fantasies of space colonization (bound to be capital-intensive and exclusive even when it fully arrives) we don’t really have an out. I could frame most of my desired political and economic changes in the view that we need to dislodge entrenched power and allow free competition to rejuvenate our society, but I’m not sure if I could concoct a plausible historical narrative of the trends and forces that get us there.

Have you heard of Georgism? Henry George was an American classical political-economist whose book “Progress and Poverty” was incredibly famous and influential in the Belle Époque period. Almost completely forgotten nowadays but it’s undergoing something of a revival. George was deeply influenced by the conditions of frontier life and how they changed as economic development progressed (particularly in California at the time). His book traced how and why poverty increased alongside progress. His solution was to effectively make land/location common property through public capture of all unearned income from land, alongside getting rid of all other taxes that didn’t fall on the natural world. It was attempt to recreate the opportunities of the frontier in an environment where all the available land had already been swallowed up by private tenure. He saw himself as advocating *true* free trade and replacing one-sided competition with true competition.

Here’s a quote from another one of his books “Protection or Free Trade

“But to put all men on a footing of substantial equality, so that there could be no dearth of employment, no “over-production,” no tendency of wages to the minimum of subsistence, no monstrous fortunes on the one side and no army of proletarians on the other, it is not necessary that the state should assume the ownership of all the means of production and become the general employer and universal exchanger; it is necessary only that the equal rights of all to that primary means of production which is the source all other means of production are derived from, should be asserted. And this, so far from involving an extension of governmental functions and machinery, involves, as we have seen, their great reduction. It would thus tend to purify government in two ways—first by the betterment of the social conditions on which purity in government depends, and second, by the simplification of administration. This step taken, and we could safely begin to add to the functions of the state in its proper or co-operative sphere.

There is in reality no conflict between labor and capital; the true conflict is between labor and monopoly. That a rich employer “squeezes” needy workmen may be true. But does this squeezing power result from his riches or from their need? No matter how rich an employer might be, how would it be possible for him to squeeze workmen who could make a good living for themselves without going into his employment? The competition of workmen with workmen for employment, which is the real cause that enables, and even in most cases forces, the employer to squeeze his workmen, arises from the fact that men, debarred of the natural opportunities to employ themselves, are compelled to bid against one another for the wages of an employer. Abolish the monopoly that forbids men to employ themselves, and capital could not possibly oppress labor. In no case could the capitalist obtain labor for less than the laborer could get by employing himself. Once remove the cause of that injustice which deprives the laborer of the capital his toil creates, and the sharp distinction between capitalist and laborer would, in fact, cease to exist.

They who, seeing how men are forced by competition to the extreme of human wretchedness, jump to the conclusion that competition should be abolished, are like those who, seeing a house burn down, would prohibit the use of fire.

….

Where there exists a class denied all right to the element necessary to life and labor, competition is one-sided, and as population increases must press the lowest class into virtual slavery, and even starvation. But where the natural rights of all are secured, then competition, acting on every hand—between employers as between employed; between buyers as between sellers—can injure no one. On the contrary it becomes the most simple, most extensive, most elastic, and most refined system of co-operation, that, in the present stage of social development, and in the domain where it will freely act, we can rely on for the co-ordination of industry and the economizing of social forces.

….

Individualism and socialism are in truth not antagonistic but correlative. Where the domain of the one principle ends that of the other begins. And although the motto Laissez faire has been taken as the watch word of an individualism that tends to anarchism, and so-called free traders have made “the law of supply and demand” a stench in the nostrils of men alive to social injustice, there is in free trade nothing that conflicts with a rational socialism. On the contrary, we have but to carry out the free trade principle to its logical conclusions to see that it brings us to such socialism.

The free-trade principle is, as we have seen, the principle of free production—it requires not merely the abolition of protective tariffs, but the removal of all restrictions upon production.”

https://oll.libertyfund.org/title/george-protection-or-free-trade

Sam, that reminds me somewhat of Frederick Jackson Turner’s “frontier thesis”, that the US character was shaped by “the frontier” and with the official closing of the frontier in 1890, that part of our history was over. As I recall, Turner was a little mystical about it. Your “frontier society is basically a bubble”–because you can only start a lot of new things once–is a more concrete version.

Sam,

Your framing of the culture described here as “frontier culture” and necessarily also a “bubble” intrigues me because it reminded me of Evsey Domar’s trilemma (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Domar_serfdom_model ), which posited that abundant free land (ie a frontier), abundant free labor (ie a system where labor is generally free), and large-scale agriculture (ie society is not dominated by a small aristocracy that mostly lives on land rent) cannot all co-exist at once over the long-term – eventually, one of the three must give (this is not to say that Americans were eventually trapped into a ‘second serfdom’ of some kind, excepting those parts of the Americas which ran on actual, mostly racially-defined, slave/serf economies). However, it also does seem that there is a corollary to Domar’s trilemma: rarely will fewer than two of those elements co-exist – if there is no free land, for example, then even if free labor still exists, aristocracies will still form.

In the Northern frontier economy, Domar’s serfdom model manifested in free land and labor, but not the formation of aristocracies, at least initially, while in the Southern frontier economy, the rapid establishment of landowning aristocracies simultaneous with free land led to widespread usage of bonded labor. Perhaps there is something then to the notion that the end of “free land” with the closing of the American frontier inevitably led to a system where “free labor” eventually disappeared due to the loss of the “free land” safety valve. Domar originally applied his thesis to the study of the causes of the second enserfdom in Poland-Lithuania and Russia – perhaps there is a lesson to be drawn from that historical parallel.

> Domar concentrates the testing of his model on historical analysis of serfdom and slavery in Russia, Poland-Lithuania, Western Europe, and the United States. Domar’s analysis of Russia looks at pre-1550, where Russian peasants were free men, and 100 years later, where Russian peasants were serfs. (Domar, 8) Domar states that the relevant factors contributing to this change in classification were the number of servants required by the military and the population density. (Domar, 8) In the second half of the 15th century, the Russian government began distributing land, depopulating the central areas of the country. By the start of the 17th century, a high land/labor ratio was present in addition to the governmental need to create a large class of servants, which caused a large increase in serfdom levels in Russia into the 19th century. (Domar, 11) In Poland-Lithuania, relevant factors leading to the increase in slavery and serfdom started in the 14th century with a conquering of Ukrainian land, leading to a much higher land/labor ratio in the newly expanded region. (Domar, 11-12) In addition, the immigration out of the central areas and into the more peripheral areas of the state led to a more homogenous land/labor ratio throughout the entire state. (Domar, 12) In his analysis of serfdom in Western Europe, Domar suggests that depopulation of the late Rome Empire created a large increase in the land/labor ratio, creating a situation in which the development of serfdom rose as a subsequent effect of an increasing land/labor ratio due to a decreasing population. (Domar, 13) The end of the 13th century in Western Europe is met by a sharp decline in serfdom, which Domar attributes to overpopulation, a large surplus of labor, and thus a very low land/labor ratio

I haven’t thought through the implications wrt the American case too deeply yet, so the above model may not actually apply.

I’ve been toying with variations on Jefferson’s “ward republic:

my idea of the mode of carrying it into execution would be this. declare the county ipso facto divided into wards, for the present by the boundaries of the militia captaincies: somebody attend the ordinary muster of each company, having first desired the Captain to call together a full one. there explain the object of the law to the people of the company, put to their vote whether they will have a school established, and the most central and convenient place for it; get them to meet & build a log school house, have a roll taken of the children who would attend it, and of those of them able to pay: these would probably be sufficient to support a common teacher, instructing gratis the few unable to pay. if there should be a deficiency, it would require too trifling a contribution from the county to be complained of; and especially as the whole county would participate, where necessary, in the same resource. should the company, by it’s vote, decide that it would have no school, let them remain without one. the advantages of this proceeding would be that it would become the duty of the Wardens elected by the county to take an active part in pressing the introduction of schools, and to look out for tutors. If however it is intended that the State government shall take this business into it’s own hands, and provide schools for every county,5 then by all means strike out this provision of our bill. I would never wish that it6 should be placed on a worse footing than the rest of the state. but if it is beleived that these elementary schools will be better managed by the Governor & council, the Commissioners of the literary fund, or any other general authority of the government, than by the parents within each ward, it is a belief against all experience. try the principle one step further, and amend the bill so as to commit to the Governor & Council the management of all our farms, our mills, & merchants’ stores. No, my friend, the way to have good and safe government, is not to trust it all to one; but to divide it among the many, distributing to every one exactly the functions he is competent to. let the National government be entrusted with the defence of the nation, and it’s foreign & federal relations; the State governments with the civil rights, laws, police & administration of what concerns the state generally; the Counties with the local concerns of the counties; and each Ward direct the interests within itself.7 it is by dividing and subdividing these republics from the great National one down thro’ all it’s subordinations, until it ends in the administration of every man’s farm and affairs by himself; by placing under every one what his own eye may superintend, that all will be done for the best. what has destroyed liberty and the rights of man in every government which has ever existed under the sun? the generalising & concentrating all cares and powers into one body, no matter whether of the Autocrats of Russia or France, or of the Aristocrats of a Venetian Senate. and I do believe that if the Almighty has not decreed that Man shall never be free, (and it is blasphemy to believe it) that the secret will be found to be in the making himself the depository of the powers respecting himself, so far as he is competent to them, and delegating only what is beyond his competence by a synthetical process, to higher & higher orders of functionaries, so as to trust fewer and fewer powers, in proportion as the trustees become more and more oligarchical. the elementary republics of the wards, the county republics, the State republics, and the republic of the Union, would form a gradation of authorities, standing each on the basis of law, holding every one it’s delegated share of powers, and constituting truly a system of fundamental balances and checks for the government. where every man is a sharer in the direction of his ward-republic, or of some of the higher ones, and feels that he is a participator in the government of affairs not merely at an election, one day in the year, but every day; when there shall not be a man in the state who will not be a member of some one of it’s councils, great or small, he will let the heart be torn out of his body sooner than his power be wrested from him by a Caesar or a Bonaparte. how powerfully did we feel the energy of this organisation in the case of the Embargo? I felt the foundations of the government shaken under my feet by the New England townships. there was not an individual in their states whose body was not thrown, with all it’s momentum, into action, and altho’ the whole of the other states were known to be in favor of the measure, yet the organisation of this little selfish minority enabled it to overrule the Union. what could the unwieldy counties of the middle, the South and the West do? call a county meeting, and the drunken loungers at and about the Court houses would have collected, the distances being too great for the good people and the industrious generally to attend. the character of those who really met would have been the measure of the weight they would have had in the scale of public opinion. as Cato then concluded every speech with the words ‘Carthago delenda est,’ so do I every opinion with the injunction ‘divide the counties into wards.’

There’s much to unpack there and I’m too old to do much moving. Nevertheless, you and I share experience with one variant on Jefferson’s theme. We seen up close some of pluses and minuses of the form when based on physical locality.

A few leap to mind: I’ve seen the sort of republican virtue Samuel Adams and other founders sought in building communities like Boston into a “Christian Sparta” often founders on the rocks of people preferring to outsource work on the Shared Thing to others rather than doing it themselves as civic duty. And that was before Netflix. Living in such an association among upper-middle class sorts brought forth a pretty good participation, but remained below levels that would make Pareto blush. Living among the more middling sort later on in a similar arrangement, the rate of participation plunged: I have no idea how to raise it.

Extending it to the more granular society at large, there are barriers like the inversion of locality caused by modern information technology, from radio to TCP/IP, that makes someone’s emotional bond with a celebrity living a thousand miles a way seem a more concrete human connection than the flesh-and-blood neighbor physically living next door. Media-induced intimacy of this sort may or may not come off too artificial for post-libs but it’s a thing and, moreover, a shared thing. It does make it difficult for Jefferson’s republics of physical locality to be a solid thing when their bobbing along in liquid modernity.

The new virtual founts of identity probably need to be accounted for. Guaranteeing a republican form of government to the workplace where private government by the one or the few has been left to flourish while rule by the many has been ground down by the heel of neo-Taylorism is one possibility. The key is encouraging ecologies of scale with greater power than the proverbial economies of scale the killed the American Dream.

If real power was suddenly thrust upon the average American over even a subset of what Jefferson proposed here and in other correspondence, perhaps, like the Roman magistrates left bewildered by Julian the Apostate’s attempt to return to the principate, they won’t know what to do because of ignorance and regime uncertainty. Maybe they need the training-wheels of self-governance. Ceding more and more control over things currently left to idiot expertise seems an upgrade from the low ebb we’re at. There needs to be a check, something in the spirit of an observation found towards the beginning “The Sinews of Power” that the English liked their government local but their justice centralized. There must be a check and a balance in all things, especially this Shared Thing.

I live in a state (Massachusetts) that is largely divided into “wards”. There are 351 “cities and towns”. They do just about all the government things that the state doesn’t. They run the local schools (including the local high school, almost always named “Town High School”), police, fire, building permits, etc. That does seem to result in less feeling of alienation.

But fewer and fewer people seem to be interested in town government. There is less turnout at elections. Fewer people run for town meeting, etc.

I don’t know how much that is professionalization of government functions, how much people have other things to do (e.g., the omnipresent cell phone), and how much local decisions are constrained by state and federal laws and regulations, so you can’t self-govern much even if you have the desire, the smarts, and the energy.

Roger, a book I have not read, but would like to, and which perhaps promises an answer to your question: The Increasingly United States: How and Why American Political Behavior Nationalized. Part of the story I think must to do with the nationalization of the American media between 1920 and now. The slow loss of regional accents is an interesting way to measure those kind of identity shifts.

The only time American political behavior wasn’t nationalized was between the 1920s and 1990s. It really isn’t a coincidence the 2016 election map and 1796 election maps were essentially identical.

It’s fluctuated. During the period when the United States was encircled by foreign powers, more or less from 1790-1815, things got quite claustrophobic even at the federal level with Hamilton’s abortive fiscal-military state both during Washington’s administration and later during the Quasi-War, Jefferson’s heavy-handed attempt to enforce the Embargo Act that, since it outlawed trade with the British and French empires, fell heavily on an unwilling population in New England at sea and on land with British-held Canada, and finally the long simmer building towards the War of 1812 with Great Britain. Congress levied property taxes as a “direct tax”, apportioned to the States, during the Quasi-War and the War of 1812 and enforced it the way enforcement takes place in a high trust, low bureaucratic system: they posted assessments publicly and let neighbors rat out neighbors instead of relying solely on central bureaucratic quotas. Alexander Dallas, Madison’s Secretary of the Treasury, and republican members of the Ways and Means Committee in the House were floating the first income tax, inheritance tax, transaction tax, and other indirect excises during the crisis of 1814 when the war ended with Jackson’s exclamation point and the end of the Wars of Buonapartist aggression with Buonaparte’s defeat at Waterloo.

The role of the Federal government in day to day life thereafter shrank some as settlers poured west and escaped the confines of the Eastern seaboard but arguably Federal power was more strongly felt on the frontier than further in the more settled interior since much of it remained under direct Federal rule as territories with the Federal government handling land sales, providing basic policing with the Army, and handling other services that otherwise would fall to local government of the time. Centralized power grew steadily after the Civil War but much of it was exercised through “private” hands since U.S. corporations are another example of a virtual polity attempting to escape what its defenders might claim was the tyranny of physical locality. Why remain moored to place when your empire is an empire of imagination?

Recognizing that the tyranny of physical locality can be liberation through proximity or freedom through nearness can be found in the suggestion that the Reformation, which broke up the integral system from Rome into more local units, was integral to the preservation of what integral absolutists of the time thought were quaint and antiquated medieval customs like local rule by burghers and their embellishment by more novel forms like Reformed republics like John Calvin’s Geneva. These did away with the tyranny of remote Italian absentee ownership and regulation and thrust it back onto the locals.

The local parishes of England, freed from Rome by Parliament and Henry VIII’s succession issues, became the major seedbeds within which the English republicanism that grew in the even more fertile fields of North America was revived and restored. The Puritans were an outgrowth of this since they wanted there to still be one Church for England but they wanted one reinforced by the example of Geneva. The differences of congregation governance between Presbyterianism with its centralized Kirk of learned ministers, Congregationalism with its somewhat centralized yet federated churches, or Independency, which placed all self-governance in the local congregation is key to understanding the emergence of the various strains of American self-government. These somewhat overlap with the Fischerian nations within a Nation that Tanner has dealt with elsewhere.

For those not aware, L. refers to his–and my–experience in the LDS faith. A congregation in this church is an experience in self government, as I have defined it. Good wards (the LDS word for “congregation”) are often held up by a minority of the active and the engaged–though I do not think affairs are quite so negative in their pareto distribution as he has seen (L. lives in Utah; outside of Utah, where the congregation collapses without larger, necessary support, people rise to the challenge),. One of the important lessons of the LDS experience is that hierarchy is not the enemy. More thoughts on this later this week.

Those who come to any form of self-government by the zeal of choice rather than the inertia of inheritance will usually be more diligent in its exercise.

My 4th great grandfather, William Sutfin, fought in the 1776 Trenton campaign in defense of his native country (New Jersey). He received his bounty land in upstate New York, lived until 1832, and during the final couple of years of his life, received a pension from the Federal government. The application for his pension, where much of the information about his life comes from, required multiple affidavits to testify to his history. We find that he suffered significant hearing loss while standing too close to the cannons while they fired off a salute to the arriving Marquis de Lafayette and that he lost all of his teeth after receiving chamomile as a medication after he fell sick. The final document in his War Department file is a petition from his children, including my 3rd great grandmother Henrietta Sutfin (Smith), to let them continue receiving his pension as an inheritance after death.

Freedom rang in the ears of both Henrietta and William but it rang at more personal and self-evident frequency in the father’s ears than in the daughter’s ears. This is not because of any difference in virtue between farmer turned militiaman and republican mother but because one was in circumstances that left frozen bloody footprints on the midnight march to Trenton and the other did not. There’s something to be said for local, embodied experience. I inherit no special virtue as an American by having a forefather or foremother who experienced the War for New Jersey Independence. I must accept the gospel of the American nation and its current expression as a state, these United States of America, to exercise what self-government I can within my given sphere.

It’s somewhat similar to how Latter-day Saints who live on the tribal reservation that is the state of Utah receive their inheritance. When your religion overlaps with your tribe, the locality you are basting in, it’s easy to become a Saint by routine rather than a Saint by zeal. Outside those reinforcing ties, you fall far more easily into the more individual, anonymous, and yet metered routine favored by the broader American culture.

I’ve seen Pareto’s deadly ratio’s hand at work among the Latter-day Saints, I’ve seen it at work in large multinational corporations I’ve worked for, and I’ve seen it in other groups where I’ve tarried for a time. A minority will be mission-driven zealots who’ve inhaled and gotten high off that group spirit while most will go a long to get along before sneaking off to watch Netflix or play video games. Citizenship in a republic and being a Saint are both demanding callings within their respective spheres of operation. Outsourcing self-government to some other mortal, possibly some queen or king or to an idea or to your chosen service provider of choice is easy and logical. That republicanism is a standing rebuke to the specialization and division of labor embraced by liberalism is one of the great contentions of our moment.

Serious non rhetorical question:
Do you think that the restoration of the kind of localist political and economic self-government whose loss you mourn here (IIUC) is compatible with the maintenance of a modern post-industrial material standard of living?

If so, why? What about the history of the last century and a half suggests that the enormous scale, specialization, and complexity of productive activity which makes modern material life possible can be done without the empowerment of specialized expertise and large-scale coordinating bureaucracies?

If not, how do you propose to convince people to give up modern material life in order to regain the localist self government our great-great-grandparents knew?

The answer I suggested in my piece “On Cultures That Build” is that there is something of a lag here. Early bureaucracies–be they states or corporations–were first built by people who came of age in the older republican order, the order that tutored young men (and some young women) in the art of strategy, institution building, and self government. The original bureaucracies they created were instruments cleverly designed to accomplish great things on small time scales. Neither government nor business seems to have the sort of organizational capacity to do these things anymore, and the gains in the material standard of living you talk about have slowed. My hypothesis is that this can be best explained as a function of two facts: following Carol Quigly, those instruments have degraded into institutions, more concerned with self maintenance than problem solving. As institutions and rules proliferate, veto points grow, and old growth slows down the gears. This calcified system takes more of an input to reach similar outputs, and ends up as a drag on the productive frontier. This problem is worse in government than in the private sector as there is no counterpart to bankruptcy to clear out calcified organs, but it happens in the private sector as well. Secondly, younger generations, who grew up under management, learned that the only way to solve problems is to appeal to management. That is fine as far as things go, but eventually those kids are not so young, and the leaders of the future, having no experience with self government, also do not know how to govern. I refer you to that essay for the long version of that argument.

I am unsure of what to do about this! Localist political revival seems easier to me than localist economics; the medium way is to, as do hierarchical organizations like the LDS Church or the U.S. Marine Corp, provide a sort of large scale coordination that also empowers individuals to act well at the local level. I think I will have to write a piece on this second idea.

But I am afraid I do not have any ready-make solutions or political programs for anyone. I suspect this is one of the reasons people are attracted to post liberal arguments over arguments like these: if you can just get rid of Lockean culture then it could all be solved! But if the problem is bigger, a matter of technology and technocracy instead of just one of ideas, then the problem gets much tougher.

But if the problem is bigger, a matter of technology and technocracy instead of just one of ideas, then the problem gets much tougher.

Hereby nominated for understatement of the millennium.

Hi there! Concerning this sentence:

“Early bureaucracies–be they states or corporations–were first built by people who came of age in the older republican order, the order that tutored young men (and some young women) in the art of strategy, institution building, and self government.”

What books would you suggest on “the art of strategy, institution building, and self-government”? While I will start with the references in your article “On Cultures That Build”, I was hoping you might recommend a few books to help jump-start the process. Thank you.

I don’t think this post successfully critiques post-liberalism. Mr. Greer thinks that expressive individualism arose in response to the decline of subsidiarity in American civic life. The post-liberals, if they haven’t already, would probably agree that this argument has merit. Then they would demonstrate how the decline of subsidiarity in American civic life was caused by Americans’ commitment to or loyalty to liberalism.

Consider: subsidiarity is a necessarily messy, hierarchal, distributed form of human authority. When conflicts arise, as they inevitably do, anyone can look around and see that “that messy human authority over there” is restricting someone’s freedom. This wouldn’t be a problem per se if Americans weren’t strongly committed to the notion that securing individual freedom is a political priority. But we are, so it is. It hardly takes longer than a generation or two for someone to shout, “something must be done about this!” and for his fellow countrymen to listen.

Long-term, the never-ending collection of “something must be done about its” become concentrated in a network of monolithic bureaucratic structures that collectively manage everything for everyone. This ensures that everyone is free and that anyone who gets in the way of individual freedom is dealt with. Severely.

Theoretically that sort of works, but is a bit ahistorical. It doesn’t explain how or why the progressives began to construct the administrative state, first in places like Wisconsin, then later on in the rest of the nation; it does not even try to explain the bureaucratization of economic life. Tocqueville provided a more compelling rationale (focused on the atomizing effects of equality and the subsequent demand for a large central government) for this same dynamic, and you are perhaps better off looking to him if you want to make this critique? But even there it doesn’t describe the origin point, only the difficulty the classical republicans had dethroning the new state.

A bigger problem with post liberal arguments general is a kind of silly attempt to find origins of origins, not recognizing that the thing they decry died long ago, replaced by something new on the scene. Arch reactionary Nigel Carlsbad, nostalgic for the reactionaries of the 1820s, had a very thorough take down on this point. I have nowhere seen it refuted: https://carlsbad1819.wordpress.com/2021/10/03/why-post-liberalism-failed/

Thanks Mr. Greer. I am puzzled by your preoccupation with the origin point of our country’s present woes. I might be misreading you, but it seems like you are under the impression that if we can’t agree on how this state of affairs came to be, that undermines our claims about what it is now. This is an example of the genetic fallacy.

I am more concerned with essence than origin, and the essence of liberalism is thankfully not too difficult to grasp: it is a political doctrine that the just exercise of authority ought to prioritize the securing of individual freedom and, concomitantly, equal rights. A liberal regime is one which explicitly professes this principle as its governing political doctrine, which is why I find Mr. Carlsbad’s claim that “we do not live in a liberal order, and have not for quite a while” to be as laughable as Mr. Carlsbad finds the post-liberals’ fascination with FDR.

In essence, liberalism and subsidiarity are not compatible. Subsidiarity is messy hierarchical organic authority. Its opposite is a single efficient monolithic authority micromanaging everything all the time, regardless of whether that monolithic authority is dictatorial, democratic, or carried out through some other formal structure (e.g. a patchwork). But at the end of the day some form of monolithic authority is what we will settle upon if our priority is to maximize our collective capacity to actually choose what we wish to choose, which is the essence of freedom. Monolithic authority is simply more efficient at aligning our collective desires and concrete available options. Unless your desires include self governance through a messy, hierarchical, distributed form of human authority, that is.

The other theme that occurs to me in reading this piece (and I’d like to take the opportunity to say how very much I enjoy your writing, and thinking, even though we come from different political traditions), is that it perhaps exposes a tension in right-wing thought that’s rarely articulated.
Your essay is mostly concerned with the social implications of urbanisation, corporatisation, and bureaucratisation – we feel alienated by this ‘leviathan’. But of course leviathans can be born of both right (Hobbes, Hitler) and left (Stalin, Mao) philosophies. Thus we find perversities in the response of the right. In both the US and the UK, Trump and Boris, the response to alienation at the hands of the leviathan has been to centralise and spend. One might say it’s a natural reaction to the pandemic and historically low interest rates (it’s prudent to spend while it’s cheap to do so) – but it’s difficult to argue that these responses do anything other than grow the leviathan. The leviathan is nothing more than a handy excuse for conservatism to shed its economic liberalism.
The logical response to our Kafka-esque world might be to embrace social libreralism. Stop telling people how to live their lives, get the state out of their bedrooms. Abortion, women’s rights, gay rights, trans rights – all good responses to the Kafka-esque. Yet that’s not what we see in conservatism today. Once again, the diagnosis doesn’t inform the treatment. It’s simply a matter of channeling the alienation towards arbitary ends.
The tension I referred to earlier adds another dimension to this, I believe. The laisses-faire conservative believes in letting business go off and create stuff. Clear the way for the future, it will disrupt the status quo and therefore the inevitable trend towards market dominance, rent-seeking, and complacency. Innovation makes markets work for all of us, not just the last producer standing.
And yet, is not the source of so much alienation technological in nature? Isn’t the medium the message; commoditising us? We face a future of automation, omnipresent surveillance, and digital money. Visions of the neo-liberal tech utopians, but hardly visions of progressives or conservatives. I wonder if the leviathan is less about the state today, than technological determinism.
One view of politics is to see it as a struggle for control of the leviathan. Another sees it as a struggle to limit the leviathan (as another commenter points out, urbanisation and the eradication of frontiers makes this a losing proposition for both right and left). But perhaps a third perspective should see politics as a process of mitigating the inherently alienating effects of technological change. I’ve not seen left or right engaging seriously with technological determinism – I see lamentations, acknowledgement of alienation… but no substantive response.
By way of an example: Driverless cars are coming. They promise to make roads safer, more efficient, and greener. But they will also deprive human beings of the sense of privacy, autonomy, capability, and agency that comes from driving oneself wherever and whenever one wishes without constant surveillance (recognising that there’s little agency whilst sitting in gridlocked traffic). Does anyone know of a distinctively left or right-wing response to this alienation that isn’t to merely channel it into anger at, say, billionaires or immigrants?

Hobbes was very leftwing. He was liberal in the “would have voted for Hillary had he been alive in 2016” sense. He might be rightwing by the standards of the modern left, but that’s a low bar to clear.

I’m interested to see where this goes – it’s one thing to draw the contours of the managerial state, it’s something entirely different to figure out what to do about it, in terms of living a life under less managerial influence or reducing its power.

I have to quibble about the some of the timing, though. My assumption is that the pace of bureaucratization depended on what part of the country and how urban it was. My grandparents (born in 1930s) absolutely grew up in a world much closer to Tocqueville than Kafka, the catch being that they were only one or two generations from the first permanent settlers in the area.

Whatever the exact timeline, if the “fall” is both specifically American and within recent history, it is encouraging news for people who can look to their ancestors, living or dead, for inspiration and for groups like Mormons where frontier settlement and self-governance is part of their founding mythology. On the other hand, this paints another bad tone on the persistent animosity towards pioneers and early Americans in general in education, media, and progressive politics – if the political counterpoint to the current centralized bureaucratic state is American frontier self-governance, a lot of the animosity could be understood as people doing management’s bidding to uphold the status quo, justify the current system, and malign any alternatives.

“My assumption is that the pace of bureaucratization depended on what part of the country and how urban it was.”

This is largely correct. Some tech billionaire said a few years back “the future is already here, it just is not evenly distributed yet.” That is as true of the past as the present: the constitutive elements of the America we see in 1950s all existed in the ’20s–they just were not evenly distributed yet. The 1950s is what happens when you take the essential social and technological inventions of the ’20s and spread them out into the midwest and the sunbelt.

“As long as America is divided between managers and the managed; as long as her culture honors distinctions between experts and the average; and as long as her citizens’ daily lives are decided by rules and regulations made by bureaucrats living far away, then the malaise, atomization, and enervation that the post liberals mourn will continue apace.”

Totally disagree here. The ultimate goal of any serious post-liberal project should not be class conflict, but class cooperation (mostly to get elites to have more working-class views, though some of the reverse should not be excluded). Experts and ordinary people will always exist.

“Experts”–which are not the same thing as “leadership” or “elites”–were a creation of the 1910s-1920s. Neither the role nor the concept existed before that point. The Weibhe book I reference in the post has a very good discussion of this.

Seems like a lot of postlibs—in an effort to countersignal to con establishment—take many progressive-era-originated for granted

“ The New Left was a rebellion against life under management.” That is the Marxist talking point about Modernity, and may have resonated with students at elite schools indignant about the probability of such an inglorious future career. But that’s only part of the story. You can’t tell the story of the New Left without telling the story of the long progress of secularization, finally complete at the elite university level starting in the mid-20th century. The New Left can be thought of as the result of Marxist humanist activism (plus a lot of jargony mumbo-jumbo signaling) filling the void in the soul where a more calming and pro-social Christianity would have resided in a prior generation of students and professors. As Voegelin put it (and switching metaphors now), Christianity in America inoculated against the neo-Kantian / Hegelian / Marxist tide that first swept over a secularist Europe in the early 1900s. Unfortunately it was only a matter of time before the immunity wore off as Christianity decayed in America.

Your point about loss of individual control and dignity is valid and reasonable, but is not mutually exclusive with the conservative theory centered on religious decline.

Tanner, great piece. Though, the way you frame the problematic and the argument here are both located in fantasyland, or perhaps mythmakingland, which seems likely your intention. Not only is it clear that many pre twentieth century U.S. regional societies did not exactly allow people to be masters of their fates (Puritans, southerners, etc.), but the construction of larger civil and state organizations in the last 120-ish years has been a response to social and labor issues that arose in light of bigger economies and industrialization/urbanization, but especially the exigencies of American state power to fight and win great power wars, hot and cold. Young people who want to feel autonomy and make an impact absolutely can do so today, but to do so they need to reconcile their efforts with the conditions precedent and the actually existing dimensions and contours of economic and political power, the realities of modern demographics, technology, and world order. Above the managerial layer you deplore still sits today (and has always sat) the free contest of real power and money. That world is and has always been ruthlessly competitive and cannot afford to make concessions to young people out of pity. It’s a place where all must be equipped to compete. So, as a matter of myth making and ur-politics, my point to you here is to consider not setting people up to fail by either making them feel hopeless or giving them hope that a dramatically different world is possible, but rather giving them the tools and showing them the path to confront the actually existing world and succeed within it.

Tossing out a couple scattered thoughts (based on my own hobbyhorses):

1) I think this has already come up in the comments, but I’m very curious how this analysis holds up when applied to the American South between the end of the Civil War and the Depression. I’m speaking partly out of ignorance — I honestly have no idea if the average Alabama sharecropper (black or white) participated in as many councils and associations as their Minnesota or California counterpart as described in the essay. (My off-the-top-of-my-head guess is no.) Also I wonder if Reconstruction resembled the alienating administrative state, and if there was a corresponding loss of self-government skill in the South, or if Reconstruction was too half-hearted to make an actual dent in Southern social organizing styles. (The most recent input I got on Reconstruction was from visiting the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, which is understandably preoccupied with the rise of lynchings [not to mention outright massacres] during that time period, and regards Reconstruction efforts as pretty fig-leaf-life overall.) The other possible point of comparison is Native Americans under BIA control.

2) This point already got made (by david), but one complication is that the number and variety of potential committees, chapters, societies, etc. has increased, but the legibility of such groupings has not, and the ability of said groupings to “build” in traditional geographic terms has probably decreased. To give you a specific example: I have friends who devote a lot of time and energy every year to the staging of an annual anime convention with thousands of attendees. They’re organized; they’re social; they find the work meaningful; but the end result isn’t something “built” but an ephemeral experience. But experiences become easier to organize when the groups in question are ageographical (see also this story about Kansas City Chiefs fans donating to a Buffalo hospital en masse; the impetus came not from an on-the-ground group but from a Facebook page called Chief Kingdom Memes, which, presumably, one would not have to live in Kansas City to subscribe to).

3) Going to throw in a potential confounding variable: the decline in infant and child mortality, which corresponds to your timeline. Is it possible that higher expectations for child-raising and treatment -> children as time sinks -> less time for communal input? (Also less motivation: I could see your Minnesota or California couple in part needing the stronger bonds of community as an emotional buffer at a time when each of their newborns had only a one-in-ten [IIRC] chance of surviving the first year.) (This would also explain 1968 as a turning point, by the way; I just checked with Our World in Data, and infant mortality in 1970 was four times the 2019 rate. And anyone who has ever installed a car seat can tell you that general social safety expectations for kids are higher than they were even thirty years ago.)

3a) Related point: if my point 3 holds up at all, then one of the few places you’d expect to see continued self-government would be schools, since that’s the place where people (especially mothers; raises hand) can get their self-governing, I-can-make-a-difference itch scratched without feeling like they’re “neglecting” their kids. But that runs smack up against the greater consolidation of school districts (which has been mentioned here before, in the Title IX-ification post — my kids’ school district covers 100,000 students, by the way) and the pandemic; and more recently, and perhaps not unrelatedly, a line of critique of “nice white parents,” who are seen as threatening and/or working school bureaucracy to their own/their kids’ benefit and thereby exacerbating inequality.

jessica—

Thoughtful questions/comments, as always.

I chose non-Southern states for the exact reason you identified! Southerners did have less org experience and social capital at that time…. and continue to have less of these things today. With that said, they were only associationally poor relative to other Americans. The best statistics we have suggest they were better off in this regard compared to Europeans. If you travel around the south and know what you are looking for you see evidence of this everywhere. Yesterday, in Charlottesville VA I came across an old black cemetery. Its flagstones were humble compared to those at the larger, segregated resting place across the street. A historical marker had just been put up there, explaining how the cemetery, the earliest gravestones of which were dated to the 1870s, had dozens of unmarked graves inside it. The black population was too poor to do afford otherwise. The entire grave side was called “dauhters of zion” cemetery–so called because the organization that ran it was a black association of freedwomen known as “daughters of zion.” The black concluded with the note that this cemetery was “evidence of the important and forgotten role that associations played in post bellum African American life.”

Jessica,
Regarding childrearing. The increasing burden of childrearing on the nuclear family, appears to be a direct result of the disintegrating tribe. Before 1990, and for quite sometime after, the vast majorities of Americans live within 1 hour, usually much less, of their parents’ homes. Urbanization and the more national employment market has moved more families away from their grandparents, and by corollary, their uncles and aunts, since then. The past 30 years has been dramatic in the accelerating pace of American employment mobility, across all income brackets.

Since the 1990s, people go further afield for colleges and jobs. Many more people have moved into urban areas. Part of the American urbanization comes from immigration, but the natives have been cycling through urban into suburban, as well. That is a further element of the atomizing dislocation.

Therefore, the nuclear family is more and more responsible for its own childrearing. Before, it could count on “The Village”, that network of extended family and childhood friends, to watch children. Today, the nuclear family has to find its own babysitters and daycares. If children get sick, the parents can’t depend on the Village for contingency babysitting.

Yes, the proliferation of sports teams and activities is a further burden as well, but that may be a different phenomenon: the availability of luxury. Before, the teams were much more local. You play in the whatever ball team they have available, and they don’t travel far. Nowadays there’s a profusion of choices, and more commuting. [But that parents feel compelled to stick around and cheer their children during practice, that is perhaps a result of the childrearing time investment. The nuclear family has invested much more effort in managing the childcare, and thus treasure the kids’ accomplishments more.]

Over the weekend a few more dimensions have gnawed at me:

The risk with all “Things were better back when…” analyses is that they so easily slip into straight white Christian men complaining at the erosion of their relative social status and power at the hands of women, atheists, alternative religions, ethnic minorities, and homosexuals. The reality for all these other groups is that they are much more empowered than they’ve ever been. Urbanisation, mobility, expansion of the franchise, universal education, strong institutions, centralisation, and human rights have been transformative for all, but particularly so for those who aren’t white men.

For me, the difference between Marxist alienation and conservative or ‘post-liberal’ unease at the Kafka-esque, is that Marx doesn’t seek to ‘roll-back’. It wasn’t better when village elders were in charge. Nor the priesthood. Nor tyrant-monarchs. Nor Mafioso feudal lords. Nor industrial revolution masters. No frontier town mayors and sheriffs. Nor slave-owners. The truth of this is evident in the fact that women, minorities, and young people the world over spent the last 150 years voting with their feet whenever they were able.

“Things were better when…” invites us to “Turn back the clock” in a way that is almost inevitably misogynistic and racist. This is the ideological echo of the Left’s malaise, which is to conflate anti-capitalism with anti-semitism, and to use equality to justify violence.

I think the Right also has a blind-spot to its own Kafka-esque inventions. Today we accept that the hidden forces of economics inevitably shape our lives. Demand and supply, inflation, exchange rates, public borrowing… all have entered the public lexicon; all represent forces beyond the individual’s control which affect their prosperity. The fiction that playing by the rules, saving money, and working hard will give you a decent life is undermined by the capriciousness of market forces every bit as much as regulation and bureaucracy is said to undermine entrepreneurship.

The more I think about your excellent and thoughtful essay, Tanner, the more I’m convinced that liberalism is the only answer to the erosion of human agency at the hands of dominant groups, alienating technologies, remote government, impenetrable institutions, Stalinism in the workplace, mass surveillance, and other forces. Left and Right have always been ill at-ease with liberalism; it doesn’t satisfy the Right’s appetite for in-group primacy and it doesn’t satisfy the Left’s desire for economic equality. What liberalism does (when it does it…) is create institutions which protect the agency and dignity of the individual. To the extent that institutions are remote or impenetrable, perhaps this reflects the extent to which they are captured by ideological or social faction?

Of course, this does rather leave me open to the charge of utopianism. Socialists often complain that it gets a bad rap because the world has never actually seen ‘real socialism’ in action, and I suppose I’m arguing something similar for liberalism. But I suppose that, ultimately, the hill I’m ready to die on is that beyond the basics of defence and rule of law, I think the role of government and public institutions is to defend the agency and dignity of individuals against all comers. That’s why I don’t want post-liberalism. I want liberalism!

Early on you said I thing I doubted: “A theory of the fall is the keystone of any coherent conservative social philosophy.” Much of what you said later rather contradicted that, with examples I was going to muster in opposition: it seemed to me that in the first century or so of our nation, all factions agreed that we were the best damn nation in history and disagreed only on why that was and therefore how we should proceed going forward. Did you mean to make the above claim only with regard to the current political climate? Or have I just misunderstood from top to bottom?

Oh, I don’t think it is true! The Whigs stood aghast at Jacksonian democracy! The Jacksonians thought the banking system a pernicious, dismal evil that was dragging the country backward! The Jeffersonian Republicans viewed the constitution itself, and the centralizing order it fostered, a step in the wrong direction! And so on and so forth. Problems are inevitable. New problems are either the result of truly novel, unforeseen developments (e.g. Cortez landing near Mexica shores) or they have a history. How you trace the history decides how you fix the problem.

I think you are correct that there is a sense of alienation and disenfranchisement and lack of agency in the politics of North America. I am a Canadian, but I think similar processes have occurred on either side of the US-Canada border.

Where once an individual was able to assert meaningful agency through social action in any number of communal organizations (Church, union, trade associations, neighbourhood societies, etc), many of which have experienced historical declines due to changing economic and political forces.

I do think disempowerment of individuals at the local level leads to social malaise and cynicism, which feeds into paranoid and conspiratorial or extremist groups, most often of the right wing, which today disrupt and threaten our democracies. I do think that strengthening democracy means trying to restore the scope and means of social action at the local and communal level.

Where I disagree with you is in your characterization of 19th century American frontier society as some kind of idyll of localism and meaningful political action at the grassroot end. I think you are looking at that history through extremely rose-tinted glasses.

If you happened to be a middle class white man in some towns on the American or Canadian frontier, you indeed had a wide range of opportunities to exert your own political agency in your town, on your farm, at your church, and through all kinds of community organizations and societies. Being able to exert agency and make substantial changes and contributions to your community probably did lead to a greater sense of happiness and social satisfaction for those people. But those people were a distinct minority.

In other towns, your town was owned by a particular company or business magnate. You were paid in company scrip, your children were educated in a company school, you were essentially owned by the industrial baron of your town, and your scope for agency was likely much, much constrained. Many, many Canadians and Americans of those times lived in industrial towns or cities, and were industrial wage labourers. Those labourers had to fight fierce battles, sometimes politically and sometimes physically, to unionize, and to be treated as human beings by companies and industrial elites which regarded them as expendable machinery more than people. Hours were long, wages were low, and working conditions were dangerous. The labour rights were enjoy today were earned by hard conflicts.

That’s all IF you happen to be a white male. The experience of women, or non-white ethnic groups (Black Americans, First Nations, Chinese Canadians, etc) was very, very different, and also likely had much lesser opportunities to assert agency.

While I think your analysis of the social malaise brought about by disenfranchisement and disempowerment is accurate, I think we should very careful about romanticizing the past. There was never any Golden Age, in any place or time, and while we should look to the past for lessons we also should be very careful about what we glorify or seek to emulate. The reality is often a lot more nuanced than we believe.

Reminded me of “Fundamentalism and American Culture” by George M. Marden

Where in the 19th century, Evangelicals had social reform as their primary consideration: with a huge consensus on the economic and moral laws that supported a sound economic system. The Scottish Common Sense Philosophy, from the mid-18th century, was widely adhered to. Evangelism was optimistic about the world of here and now.

Obviously that changed. Evangelism went from premillennialism to postmillenialism (maybe I have that backward), building God’s Kingdom on Earth (as proscribed in the Bible) to maintaining spirtuality in an ever shortening time until the end of this world.

Typo: change “Metzer” to “Metzger” in note 6. The name is spelled correctly in the main text.
Thanks for your rich and thoughtful essay here. Much to ponder.

I enjoyed this a lot, I’m a self-proclaimed localist, so it’s only natural for it to strike right at the center of my confirmation bias, individualist I know, also and as some others have pointed out, the kind of materialist analysis you do goes in the right direction. I think this has a practical solution, or at least a (very) discrete set of policies can get you close enough, imo some devolution of powers with more complex knowledge intensive local governments(which would have the added benefit of absorbing a lot of graduates and other aspiring elites so you avoid the Turchin trap), emphasizing the city-level decision making and overall state capacity, since most significant development that isn’t mantaining a stable currency and securing the country from external threats are a matter of urban economics like labor markets, basic services, transit or land value taxes, you can also consider some innovations like approval voting, then you let the system run some iterations and voila! I know it’s a very economicist and symplistic view, but could be cheaply acted on at some small places and then, if works, try to run with it country wide. I think the main problem may be getting out of the equilibria were you have a big and centralized bureaucracy, since if you get a very cynic view of elites as small groups maximizing rents from as big a pie as possible, then their tendency will be to not let go, also the individualism inspires utopism, so even if succesful, most revolutionary movements will end up imposing their own Leviathan, local elites will become global ones, which instead of sharing power with their pairs seek their destruction or subordination and you fall back on an even worse place. Then the first step is coordinating a descentralizing movement, which is difficult since it isn’t as easy to inflamate the souls of (alienated) men as with the glorious narratives of Marxism, Fascism or the ramblings of the blogger of the moment, fantasy is the mother of action, you need to inspire people to dream of something similar to Switzerland but better, which as good as it may be, doesn’t quite reach the heaven like highs of the aforementioned examples…

Your writing is so complex and well-crafted! It’s a pleasure to read.

We get to the meat in the last paragraph:

“As long as America is divided between managers and the managed; as long as her culture honors distinctions between experts and the average; and as long as her citizens’ daily lives are decided by rules and regulations made by bureaucrats living far away,”

That’s all well and good, though I am not clear how you concluded that THIS is the root cause problem – people making laws and regulations that you might disagree with. And that experts are in charge of things (for which they might have some training and expertise).

But anyhow, with this question so settled, and the problem laid out, what’s the way forward? The only thing that most “rational” conservatives can come up with is some version of Libertarianism or other. Which is a fancy way of saying, just let people do whatever they want, which is no way to run a business or any other large and complex organization.

I have noticed how the Christian right has been filling this gaping intellectual hole recently. But yoking government to religion? you can’t get any more “citizens’ daily lives are decided by rules and regulations made by bureaucrats living far away” than this. In fact, you’d need to amend it to “rules and regulations made by Jewish bureaucrats living far away 2,000 years ago on the other side of the planet”. Theocracy is the antithesis of self-determination after all.

This is the problem with conservatism, there tends to not be a positive, actionable, forward looking-program for government. Occasionally a sunny spokesperson will emerge, but at the root, it’s usually the same libertarian negation of the current order that’s for sale. The GOP didn’t even bother to propose a platform for the 2020 election.

It’s always the leftist who have plans for the problems of the day, conservatives seem only able to act as a foil or as resistance to it. Or maybe more tax cuts, let’s just gum it up and shut it down and pretend we are the Party Of Ideas. That is no way to build this country up.

I agree, I can’t imagine living in the kind of non-governance land conservatives of all stripes seem to advocate. Like just imagining the dip in that quality of life is too hard. I’ll take some government waste for America as its now, paradise to what was before.

You’re going to end up with a much lower quality of life if you don’t adopt conservative (in fact reactionary) policies. Honestly, the only did in quality of life I see from right policies is that from having to actually save and plant what’s left of our seed corn rather than continuing to eat it.

> I have noticed how the Christian right has been filling this gaping intellectual hole recently. But yoking government to religion? you can’t get any more “citizens’ daily lives are decided by rules and regulations made by bureaucrats living far away” than this. In fact, you’d need to amend it to “rules and regulations made by Jewish bureaucrats living far away 2,000 years ago on the other side of the planet”. Theocracy is the antithesis of self-determination after all.

Rules that were fixed 2,000 years ago are infinitely preferable to rules that can change daily on some bureaucrat’s whim. Also the fact that said rules managed to last 2,000 years suggests that they are in fact good rules.

> I have noticed how the Christian right has been filling this gaping intellectual hole recently. But yoking government to religion? you can’t get any more “citizens’ daily lives are decided by rules and regulations made by bureaucrats living far away” than this. In fact, you’d need to amend it to “rules and regulations made by Jewish bureaucrats living far away 2,000 years ago on the other side of the planet”. Theocracy is the antithesis of self-determination after all.

Rules that were fixed 2,000 years ago are infinitely preferable to rules that can change daily on some bureaucrat’s whim. Also the fact that said rules managed to last 2,000 years suggests that they are in fact good rules.

“…but the essential problem would remain. As long as America is divided between managers and the managed; as long as her culture honors distinctions between experts and the average; and as long as her citizens’ daily lives are decided by rules and regulations made by bureaucrats living far away, then the malaise, atomization, and enervation that the post liberals mourn will continue apace.”

I’m way out of my depth in this company—and I love everything being posted here; can’t wait for part (2)—but I think that what ails a lot of Americans right now, that sense of malaise or whatever, that the post liberal critique is trying to wrestle with is the simple fact that at least one of the major tenets of the American Dream is over: the good time aren’t rolling the way they used to. Each succeeding generation is clearly not doing better than its parents did, specifically the Greatest Gen and the Boomers. Owning ones own home, having a secure retirement, and leaving something over for the kids is no longer an option. The economic assumptions, at least, of the 1946–1975 (pick your date) were the Fat Years for America. Since then, not so much.

I think that it’s the economic well being, not the regulations and statues that “they” are placing on us that is causing the existential stress for so many (religious persecution complex or White sense of status loss aside). Whether a libertarian, MMT, Marxist, or some other analysis is applied to assign blame, I think that the problem is that American religion, or philosophy, or bowling leagues and coffee shops, or crystals, or farm subsidies, or family policies, or wars on the latest knee-jerk social evil isn’t providing the necessary balm. There are a number of countries around the world with more, less, or equivalent regulation and distant management regimes where the populace is self-identifying as being a good deal happier than we are in America. I think that being minimally constrained yahoos running around in a frontier with the next gusher just about to come in just isn’t a model for national mental well being anymore.

Tanner, if you’re reading, I highly respect and revere your writing. Thank you for your insightful reflections in our changing times.

I don’t think any of this “post-liberal” stuff is very serious at all. Generally, I think we are in the middle of a culture war. Most of the theorizing is just a coping mechanism for a Democratic popular majority and judge-made law at the Supreme Court.

People living in the biggest, richest, and most powerful republic in world history who pine for life as a medieval serf are just dreaming. The reality is their party is in a tough spot. Conservatives are digging their heels because of political gridlock. Patrick Deneen is just frustrated. Liberals are also digging their heels by playacting the 1930’s New Deal era or rewriting the present as the Jim Crow South. They are also having trouble getting things through Congress and the courts.

In a democracy, the people should be able to govern themselves. It’s not the government agencies that are preventing this. It’s the Supreme Court. If nine judges decide what is constitutional, then no one else does. Who declared birth control, condoms, abortion, gay sex, pornography, and gay marriage as essential to American identity? Who made flirting at the office illegal? The Supreme Court. The electorate is “self-governing” with its hands tied. Even Ruth Bader Ginsburg said Roe v. Wade was wrongly decided and inflamed a culture war.

Post-liberalism is just an excuse for losing the culture war. It goes something like this: “the problem with all of this free love is that back when there were kings and queens there wasn’t any free love.” No. The problem with free love is little kids growing up without a father. The problem with easy divorce is kids getting stuck between the crossfire of their fighting parents. Medieval times are completely irrelevant to the question of whether parents should support their children. This “tradition” versus freedom thing is barking up the tree. People know what’s good for their families. People should be free to legislate. If we make good laws, we will live safely and prosper. What is unnatural here is judge-made law and then scrambling in a political battle for judicial nominees.

Anyway, state and local politics are alive and well. Texas and Florida are shining examples of conservative political workshopping. The progressives have their favorites, too, in California, Colorado, and Oregon. The laboratories of democracy keep churning. I, for one, do not feel enslaved by HUD or the EPA. I don’t spend much time worrying what the DOE or DOJ will do next. Maybe I should. But the Supreme Court can alter American history and our constitution with a few clicks on a keyboard. I do not think that’s what the Founders intended. And if you ask regular people, Red or Blue, they will tell you the same thing. The Supreme Court is out of control.