What Must We Think About When We Think About Politics?
Man is a political animal, but he is much more.
NATIONAL TRUST PHOTO LIBRARY/ART RESOURCE, NY
A headless body in a topless bar would not have surprised political philosopher Thomas Hobbes.
The late political scientist James Q. Wilson used to caution, with his elegant precision, that it’s not enough to have political opinions. You also need facts—which, for him and his brilliant colleagues at The Public Interest of the 1960s and 1970s, meant data. You think this policy will produce that outcome? Okay, try it—and then measure what happens. Did you reduce poverty? Raise test scores? And you had also better comb the data for consequences you neither expected nor intended, for all policies must stand or fall by the totality of their results. Remember, too, Wilson and his colleagues used to insist, that correlation is not causation: if two things alter more or less in tandem, that doesn’t by itself prove that one of the changes produced the other. They may be independent of each other, or some as-yet-unnoticed third force may have sparked both of them. Data don’t speak for themselves but require interpretation—which may or may not be correct. It’s art, not science.
This warning proved a powerful corrective to the liberal ideology about social policy that reigned in the 1960s—pious, unproved platitudes about “root causes” that gave birth to the War on Poverty, whose dire consequences, including an ever-more-deeply entrenched underclass, still bedevil America. But Wilson’s rigor tones up only one of the areas where political thought and discourse tend to be flabby. At least two more elements, well known to political philosophers since antiquity but often ignored today, are essential to intelligent political thinking. You have to have some understanding of psychology—of the minds and hearts that motivate the individuals who are the stuff of politics—and you have to know something about culture, the thick web of beliefs and customs that shape individuals and their social world at least as much as public policies do.
It may well be that the great English political philosophers—Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, who so profoundly influenced America’s Founding Fathers—were wrong as a matter of historical fact in positing that states and governments arose when men made a social contract, mutually agreeing to give up some of their natural freedom of aggression in order to protect their lives, liberty, and property from the aggression of others, and arming a magistrate with the power of the community to punish infractions of the contract with force. But if they were wrong as historians—if there never really were a solemn conclave in which men set their hands to an actual parchment or swore a solemn oath—they were right as psychologists. Individuals come into the world endowed by their Creator with an array of instincts, “among which,” argued the most famous psychologist of all, Sigmund Freud, “is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness. As a result, their neighbor is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him.” Anyone who has brought up children knows that being a parent is doing the work of civilization on a child-by-child basis, initiating your offspring into the social contract and giving Hobbes’s myth a firm basis in individual, if not historical, reality. No fighting, no biting; learn to share and take turns; use your words to work out disputes; those are your brother’s toys, these are yours. The inborn aggressive impulses don’t disappear but come under control, from wanting to please your parents, out of love or fear. And they get redirected, into wanting to excel others—in sports, in school, in career, in prestige.
If they do get redirected, that is. Pick up the tabloids any morning, and you’ll read a litany of depravity that emphatically proves Freud’s and Hobbes’s contention about inborn human aggressiveness, from headless bodies in topless bars, as one famous New York Post headline put it, to people spraying bullets into crowds and killing bystanders. Some tabloid images stay in your mind forever, such as six-year-old Eliza Izquierdo, whose crack-addled mother burned, beat, and sexually abused her and forced to eat her own feces, while the neighbors heard her crying, “Mommy, Mommy, please stop! No more! I’m sorry.” It did stop, when she died in 1995. Or Nixzmary Brown, whose very name implies obliteration and who suffered a similar fate at the hands of her mother and stepfather, virtually in front of the eyes of the social worker on her case, before she died at the age of seven in 2006. Or the stories of sex slaves, from the California girl kidnapped at 15 and held for a decade, until she broke loose last year, to the Idaho 25-year-old chained up by an illegal alien until she escaped two years later in 2014, to the two Amish sisters, 12 and seven, kidnapped last August and fortunately soon released by the alleged perverts who lost their nerve. For more fastidious readers, the Iagos, Fagins, Simon Legrees, and Professor Moriartys of literature—or any one of Mickey Spillane’s or Elmore Leonard’s villains—stand out so vividly because we all know just how crooked the timber of humanity is, perhaps even by self-examination.
That’s why any government needs not just magistrates but also cops, as longtime New Yorkers—who have watched good policing cut the number of murders in their town from one every four hours in 1991 to fewer than one a day in 2014—have learned by experience. Public safety, protection against aggressors both domestic and foreign, is the first job of government; and any politician who thinks that government is chiefly about redistribution or providing social services doesn’t know his job. But don’t forget Michael Pena, the drunken off-duty Gotham cop who forced a terrified 24-year-old about to begin her first teaching job into a courtyard at gunpoint one morning in 2011 and raped her while threatening to blow her head off if she made a sound or looked at his face. When a neighbor yelled at him out a window, Pena held up a finger, as if to signal, “Wait a sec, I’m almost done.” Now, three years later, he whines through his lawyer that his 75-year-to-life sentence is “an injustice.” Political thinkers from Plato to James Madison well knew that those charged with administering the laws and keeping the peace are made of the same crooked timber as the rest of all-too-human humanity, and governments need to build safeguards against the abuse of their power. In fact, as Madison saw it, those who seek to wield government power are made of perhaps crookeder timber than the rest of humanity, so the less power vouchsafed to them, the better.
Faced with such a psychological reality, it’s hard to credit the basic libertarian claim that the primary human motivation is rational self-interest, especially in economic matters. The 30-year-old Charles Dickens, already an international celebrity, constantly heard that argument when he toured America in 1842, and he dismissed it in words that are hard to beat. Southern slaveholders claimed that they never mistreated their slaves because doing so would lessen the value of their property—their capital equipment—and obviously, no one would act against his own economic self-interest. Oh, really? the incredulous Dickens responded. “Is it in the interest of any man to steal, to game, to waste his health and mental faculties by drunkenness, . . . indulge hatred, seek desperate revenge, or do murder? No. All these are roads to ruin. And why, then, do men tread them? Because such inclinations are among the vicious qualities of mankind.” Generations earlier, a thoughtful slaveholder like Thomas Jefferson acknowledged how easily slavery sets loose “the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism” in the master. One example out of legions: the slave chained atop a fence for punishment, until the pickets worked their way through his bare feet. Perhaps no framers of any government were ever as clear-eyed about human nature’s darker side as America’s Founding Fathers.
But we needn’t look to such an extreme example as slavery. Will anyone argue that rational self-interest dependably governs even all modern business decisions? Do not revenge, pride, and other boisterous passions play their part here, too? Does rational self-interest require a CEO to arrive at Aspen in the newest corporate jet with the biggest engines? Does it explain why he would spend $1.2 million to redecorate his office, with—among other hard-to-rationalize items—an $87,000 rug? Does anyone believe that rational self-interest guides every single hiring and firing choice? Even in financial markets, fear and greed stand shoulder to shoulder with reason, constantly jostling it, from tulip mania in the seventeenth century to the recent mortgage madness. In politics, who will argue that rational self-interest guides the hands of upper- and upper-middle-class voters in Manhattan, Park Slope, Cambridge, and so on as they push the levers in the voting booth in favor of ever-higher taxes on themselves for “services” they mostly don’t use (and that often help few or none), provided by overpaid and over-pensioned workers? The real point of such political behavior is to appear morally superior in your own and your neighbors’ eyes, even if the superiority is a fantasy based on an illusion.
Though the Right disdains Jean-Jacques Rousseau as a proto-hippie and the Left as a proto-fascist, the Enlightenment philosophe happens to be a thinker and prose stylist of genius, and he offers a profound proto-Darwinian understanding of how evolving into a social creature remade human psychology. When our early ancestors, quasi-solitary semi-animals—perhaps something like orangutans, Rousseau theorized in 1754—came out of the woods and invented societies, agriculture, and private property, they began to compare themselves with one another. The result: self-consciousness, individuality, and envy—the capstone, and the bane, of fully developed humanity. Rousseau focused on the furor for distinction that this psychological development led to (which explains the $87,000 rug and the smug Park Slope political attitudes), but later philosophers stressed the envy and resentment it produced, whose power anyone who wants to understand politics mustn’t underestimate. Whatever we have ourselves, even in ample sufficiency, we seethe with jealousy that others are richer, sexier, more charming, or more honored than we. Our absolute condition matters less than our sense of grievance at the affront we feel that others have done us by having or being more.
So when you hear angry talk of inequality, don’t expect to reason people out of it by asking them to look at what they themselves have. Don’t expect to sway them by explaining that a bigger pie means a bigger slice for all. Yes, men are blessed with rationality, but they are reasoning rather than reasonable creatures—which is why demagoguery, the real lingua franca of politics, works so well, outweighing reason by far. And the demagogue’s recurrent message is that an equal but poorer and autocratic society is better, “fairer,” than a more prosperous but unequal and free one. The power hunger of rulers, coupled with the resentment of the ruled, is too often the dynamo that turns the wheels of politics, especially in democracies.
Man’s cross-grained tendency toward resentment is also why governing by incentives is so undependable: you never know exactly what you will incentivize. The designers of the early housing projects, for instance, took pains to include stretches of what were supposed to be verdant lawns, on which children could play as in suburban backyards, becoming socialized into a community. The residents of the projects viewed the grass as pure condescension on the part of the authorities, self-satisfied by their munificence in providing such an amenity to the poor, and they expressed their contempt for what they saw as a patronizing gesture by trampling the grass into dust bowls in projects nationwide.
Add to the power of psychology in shaping political reality also the power of culture. Irving Kristol, cofounder of The Public Interest, pointed out in his finest essay a curious and crucially important fact about Adam Smith, the premier philosopher of man as a calculator of self-interest, and of the good effects for all of society that each individual’s pursuit of his rational self-interest produces. Smith, for all his towering genius, noted Kristol, was oddly blind to a dazzlingly obvious characteristic of his rationally calculating homo economicus: as a student and professor at the University of Glasgow, the thoroughly Scottish Smith best knew Scotsmen—and Scotsmen of the time when Scotland was one of the most brilliant centers of European Enlightenment thought. As a result, he ascribed to all men the Presbyterian rectitude and Enlightenment reason of the people around him. What Smith didn’t see, in other words, was that his rationally calculating man wasn’t any and all men, wasn’t Man in the abstract, but was instead a man formed by a particular culture—by a complex web of customs, assumptions, unexamined beliefs, and loyalties. An Enlightenment Scot is the purest embodiment of the Protestant ethic that sociologist Max Weber saw as the cultural underpinning of capitalism: he works hard, is frugal and entrepreneurial, defers gratification, and believes that his word is his bond and a deal is a deal—and that the fate of his very soul is inseparable from such virtues. These are not attributes of Man in general but of men bred in a particular culture that endows them with particular beliefs and habits, manners and morals.
Theodore Dalrymple wrote in these pages over a decade ago about a striking lesson he learned about the power of culture when he worked as a doctor in Rhodesia, as Zimbabwe was then called. (See “After Empire,” Spring 2003.) He shared a gracious British colonial house, set in manicured gardens, with three other English doctors. The similar houses of their African colleagues in the same compound, by contrast, soon degenerated into slums, and not because the African doctors were any less intelligent, skilled, or well paid than the Europeans. Instead, their high pay obligated them to care for troops of relatives, who turned the grand old houses into overcrowded tenements and let their goats ravage the grounds. Such is the force of the customs, loyalties, and beliefs that make up a culture. They become a part of your identity: if you don’t observe them, you feel shame and guilt; you feel you have failed and are not a good person. It’s not that the African doctors wouldn’t have liked to live in gracious, well-tended villas but rather that other things were more important to them. With such cultural demands on individuals, Dalrymple observes, no one could expect the Rhodesian civil service to be anything other than as corrupt as it was. Family obligation drove officials to demand bribes. An efficient and honest civil service can thrive only in a different kind of culture, like the one that grew out of the samurai ethic in Japan.
That’s why the Bush administration’s “freedom agenda” in Iraq was doomed from the start. It is an error—generous-hearted but nonetheless mistaken—to believe that all people naturally yearn for freedom and that if you merely remove the yoke of despotism from them, they will instinctively seize their chance to become democratic republicans. They may tell you that is their wish, and even believe they mean it; but other, stronger cultural impulses guide their actions—family and tribal loyalties, ancient, inherited hatreds, religious intolerance and fanaticism, traditional dominance and submission, both social and sexual. These are not ideas of the mind but feelings of the heart, intrinsic to selfhood. To create and maintain an American-style democratic republic takes centuries of multifaceted cultural development. As a matter of historical fact, in America, it took Protestant ideas of individual responsibility and freedom; a Puritan tradition of self-governing congregations; British ideas of liberty, limited government, and patriotism; an Enlightenment spirit of rationality, freedom of thought, and tolerance; and the entrepreneurial spirit that created a nation out of a wilderness. It also took the amazing good fortune of having Founding Fathers of world-historical wisdom and magnanimity. For the Western democracies in general, the rule of law, the sanctity of contract, and the relative honesty of civil servants are immense cultural as well as political achievements, unmatched from China to Argentina.
Some readers are old enough to have seen firsthand how momentous changes in American culture in the 1960s dramatically transformed the nation’s political and social reality—and the consequences of those cultural changes haven’t stopped radiating outward even today. In that decade, elite culture gave up on many of the bourgeois virtues and began to beat the drums for shunning the career rat race in favor of a search for self-realization and self-fulfillment, for experimentation in matters sexual and pharmacological, and for dumping unfulfilling spouses in search of your own bliss—with the bizarre idea that your children would be happy if you were, even with one parent and shrunken financial support. Personal responsibility went under the bus, including the responsibility of criminals, whose depredations elite culture now claimed were the ineluctable consequence of vast social and racial inequalities. A lot of wrecked lives resulted, across the social spectrum. But the greatest damage occurred among the inner-city poor, who had no margin for error. With the stigma lifted from single parenthood—increasingly so as feminism also began to reshape the culture—and lawbreaking chalked up to circumstances beyond individual control, illegitimacy and crime exploded, trapping many in intergenerational poverty and creating a permanent underclass, after decades during which the incomes and educational levels of African-Americans had been strongly rising.
For more prosperous Americans, though their adventures with sex and drugs never stopped, much of the old bourgeois ethic returned. Today’s graduate of Scarsdale High, Brown University, and the Harvard Business School works long hours, conceives children in wedlock and stays married, and unremittingly pushes his or her kids to succeed in everything from science to soccer. By contrast, the ghetto has now developed its own subculture, an intensification of the old sixties promiscuity that has resulted in most inner-city kids being born out of wedlock, a readiness to drop out that puts no stigma on welfare dependency, and a contempt for authority that hampers the ability to learn in already-flawed public schools, makes people unemployable, and blocks cooperation with the police to maintain orderly communities. And these social pathologies are now spreading into the white working class, as they did in Britain long ago—around the time that the minority underclass arose in America—with the same deplorable consequences.
In his famed Farewell Address, George Washington exhorted Americans never to let their culture of liberty and self-reliance weaken. The Constitution, over whose framing he presided, was a remarkable achievement, he acknowledged; but in the end, it is just a parchment barrier against tyranny, a dead letter if the spirit that animates it gutters out. The real Constitution—the one that safeguards the written one against the schemes of omnipresent, power-hungry demagogues—lives in the hearts and minds of the citizens; and parents, teachers, and preachers must never forget their duty to nourish it and keep it vibrant. That is what makes Americans Americans.
Vain words. For decades, those who shape our culture, from grammar-school teachers to newspaper editors, from professors to presidents, have striven to inculcate precisely the opposite lesson. Their main points: this is not a free country but rather one that has oppressed along race, class, and gender lines from its birth to this very moment. There is nothing exceptional or admirable about it or the tradition of Western civilization it rests upon, but rather it is a force for worldwide exploitation and oppression. Individuals can’t be self-reliant because only government is powerful enough to protect them from the devouring power of corporations. Nor are individuals the engines of progress: Thomas Edison didn’t build that; Jonas Salk didn’t build that; Steve Jobs didn’t build that—it took a village. Nor did their efforts create wealth that wouldn’t exist but for them, for wealth creation is a natural occurrence, like Old Faithful, while only poverty is anomalous and requires an explanation. Government functionaries aren’t power-hungry, self-interested people like everyone else but rather benevolent experts, dedicated to turning the most up-to-date knowledge into programs for the public good. Government exists not to protect our God-given liberty but to make us equal through redistribution—to bring about equality of condition rather than to ensure equality of opportunity. Moreover, it can do the job that families used to do better than the traditional family ever could, from raising children to caring for Grandma, from womb to tomb. Merit is really a disguised by-product of privilege, from career success down to high scores on school tests, which result from expensive tutoring, high-priced private education, and costly test coaching.
Though George Washington was too clear-sighted about the perversity of human nature to cherish any sentimental fantasy about the perfectibility of man, he nevertheless shared the humanist and Enlightenment view that individuals, through reason, ingenuity, creativity, effort, and knowledge (from experience and study), could make themselves into good citizens who could better their own condition and contribute to the welfare of all. He believed, with most of the Founding Fathers, that nature had endowed man with freedom for just this purpose and that using this freedom for self-improvement and for the good of the community gave life its meaning. Today’s official culture is more a culture of dependency rather than of freedom. It sees individuals as something like gerbils in the government’s cage, depending on allotments of state-supplied kibble (bought with the tax dollars of the productive) while they copulate, reproduce, and die, occasionally running pointlessly on a wheel with no thought of a higher purpose.
Many people mouth the platitudes of this new culture, more European social-democratic than American in spirit. But only a portion of Americans really live by it. The great task of politics at this moment is to change the American mind back to a full-throated, rather than embarrassed, belief in enterprise, creativity, freedom of thought, and individualism and its concomitant stress on self-reliance, self-control, and self-improvement. Policies are important, to be sure; but ideas and beliefs ultimately drive politics, and they can’t be left to take care of themselves. They have to be articulated and battled for—a job too important to be left to the schoolteachers and professors. It is a job for citizens, and doing it is what citizenship means.