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The Deepest Source of Our Troubles
On Saturday, I touched on some of the sources of Mitt Romney’s failure on 6 November, noting his almost willful alienation of Hispanic voters and his incompetence in executing a get-out-the-vote effort, but emphasizing, above all else, his decision — most evident in his contentless acceptance speech at the Republican convention — to eschew an appeal to first principles, to treat Barack Obama as a decent fellow with decent principles who is merely out of his depth, and to present himself to the voters as a more competent manager.
Of necessity, in that post, I ignored aspects of the situation unfavorable to Mitt Romney’s candidacy that were completely beyond the Republican nominee’s control. One of the reasons that Romney was unable, despite my hopes, to do in 2012 what Reagan did in 1980 is that, in the intervening 32 years a great many of the American citizens who voted for Ronald Reagan had died and been replaced by Americans educated and morally formed in a very different fashion.
This past Friday, thanks to a kind invitation from Paul Kerry of Brigham Young University, I was a guest on the Glenn Beck Show, which Paul was guest-hosting. Professor Kerry’s aim was to showcase my two recent books — Montesquieu and the Logic of Liberty and Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift. He wanted to give me an opportunity to outline in brief the argument that binds the two works together and to show how this argument applies to the world in which we live today.
The program as a whole is available only to those who subscribe to the Blaze Network (it was broadcast on 11/30/2012), but highlights have been posted on www.blaze.com. and Troy Senik kindly embedded them in a post that appeared on Ricochet on Saturday. You may find of particular interest the highlights extracted from segments one and two — wherein I first consider the difficulties associated with sustaining a republic on an extended territory, then outline the means for overcoming these difficulties suggested by Montesquieu, and, finally, explore Tocqueville’s analysis of the contribution that can be made to this effort by civil society before touching on the greatest obstacles to our continued success in sustaining self-government in the United States. This post is meant to restate in brief and then expand upon my televised remarks in such a manner as to cast light not only on the peculiar obstacles that Mitt Romney faced in early November but also on the problems we are likely to face in the future. The cultural crisis that we and our once and future allies in Europe now face is not going to go away in the near future.
Lest I bore you and fail to provoke sound and fury, let me preface my remarks by saying two things: that libertarians should be social conservatives and vice-versa.
My argument with regard to social conservatives is implicit in the criticism that I addressed to the Catholic hierarchy in a series of posts in and after February, 2012, the first and fiercest of which can be found here. It comes down to this: In embracing the administrative entitlements state, as they have, Catholic churchmen and their Protestant counterparts have lent aid and comfort to those who believe that we can establish heaven right here on earth and they have led their flocks to mistake the Machiavellian maneuver of forcefully taking from one citizen to support another for a fulfillment of the Christian duty of charity. Moreoever, their desire to sustain the political alliance devoted to expanding the welfare state caused them to knowingly downplay the enormity of murdering 50 million unborn children, and now their erstwhile allies are rewarding them for their moral obtuseness over many years by making them complicit with mass murder. In sum, they made a pact with the devil, and payment is now due. The proper setting for the practice of Christian charity is a free-market society. The rise of the welfare state and the decline of Christianity go hand in hand. To see this, one need only go to church in Europe.
But why should libertarians be social conservatives? Why shouldn’t they embrace libertinism in the manner of the folks at Reason?
The argument that I make in the first of the two highlighted segments of my presentation on the Glenn Beck show comes down to this. As Montesquieu understood, polities established on extended territories tend to end up as despotisms. They do so for a set of simple reasons. In such a polity, the government is at a great distance from the vast majority of the people it governs. It is out of sight, and, as a consequence, it is largely out of mind. As such, it offers to those in charge a temptation that human beings cannot withstand. They have in their hands Gyges’ ring, and in time it will be used. To this one can add that large polities are subject to frequent emergencies and that this tends to concentrate power in the hands of the central administration.
Montesquieu suggests one antidote and hints at another. He expressly recommends federalism. Federal states can for the most part be governed in the manner of small polities. They leave ample space for citizen participation in decisions of local import. They are also able, because of their size, to defend themselves against large polities. Montesquieu’s prime contemporary example was the Netherlands.
The antidote that he hints at is the separation of powers. Where there are representative institutions, elected representatives can look after the interests of the people. If the legislature is divided between two bodies, they can be set as sentinels over one another. If there is a separate executive power, the man occupying that position can be expected to enforce the laws without prejudice, and this means that the legislators will be subject to the laws they pass (which is a sobering thought apt to encourage prudence on their part). They in turn exercise legislative oversight with regard to the conduct of his ministers in office. Finally, the judicial power (and he has juries first and foremost in mind) protects individual citizens against a tyrannical enforcement of the law on the part of the executive.
All in all the separation of powers — especially that between the legislature and the executive — encourages a healthy conflict within the central government by means of which the two powers guard against one another.
To the British, who were ruled to good effect under such a constitution, Montesquieu attributed no virtue comparable to the passion for the public good required and inculcated in the ancient republics. Instead, he relied on the fact that Britain was a commercial polity — for he believed that the market produces in its participants a simulacrum of virtue. They may not be honest because it is honorable to be honest, but they are honest, nonetheless, because they learn from experience that honesty really is the best policy (and I use this word policy in its 18th-century Machiavellian sense). What I mean is that they are honest on calculation. They learn that, in business, honesty pays — as does frugality, orderliness, caution, and care. Indeed, all of the virtues that constitute civility in its broader meaning appear to be nourished by trade.
Above all, Montesquieu presumes that men in commercial societies will have a long time horizon. Businessmen plan ahead. They do not lose themselves in present pleasures. They habitually forego today’s delights for those of tomorrow. They pursue self-interest, yes, but the self-interest that they pursue is what Tocqueville calls “self-interest rightly understood,” and self-interest rightly understood quite frequently comprehends the long-term public interest. Those who habitually plan ahead are clear-headed about the dependence of their well-being on the well-being of the larger public, and Montesquieu thought that for the most part sufficient.
Montesquieu was, of course, aware that, if a commercial republic like England was wildly successful, it might founder. As I pointed out in the second segment of my presentation on the Glenn Beck Show, the children of very successful businessmen are not educated by experience in the market in the fashion of their parents, and their grandchildren are quite likely to be uneducated to an even greater degree. They are, in fact, likely to surrender to the temptation of self-indulgence. They are apt to forget future imperatives for the delights of the present and to live for the moment. Montesquieu did not foresee a society like our own — where general prosperity has had a propensity to produce a relaxation of the moral discipline encouraged by the market — but he provides the tools for its analysis.
Tocqueville was less confident than was Montesquieu. He lived in an age in which socialism had already reared its ugly head, and he discerned in his fellow Frenchmen a taste for servility. He feared that there might be a general descent into presentmindedness, and he anticipated Friedrich Nietzsche’s vision of the last man — who would be so satisfied with his little pleasure in the morning and his little pleasure in the evening that he would think of nothing else.
In America, he found institutions, mores, and manners antithetical to what he took to be democracy’s natural drift. Vigorous local self-government drew the inhabitants of New England townships out of their homes and into the public square. Initially, they made this move in self-defense, but the experience of participating soon became a pleasure all its own, and it induced individuals to abandon what he called “individualism” and to devote themselves to public concerns. In the process, these Americans learned to think ahead, they developed a powerful sense of their own capacity to cope with the vicissitudes of life, and they learned to cooperate with their neighbors and even with strangers in forming private associations for public purposes.
Tocqueville’s Americans were also religious. This anchored them morally and gave them a sense of place in a world otherwise in flux. It also directed their attention to the future. Just read today’s Gospel:
Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life, and that day catch you by surprise like a trap. For that day will assault everyone who lives on the face of the earth. Be vigilant at all times and pray that you have the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent and to stand before the Son of Man.
Closely connected with religion was family, and the Americans were devoted to family. Chastity was the norm; adultery was rare and divorce almost unheard of. Families, too, caused men to think ahead. America was the home of self-interest rightly understood. It was the place where women and men planned prudently for their future and that of their offspring.
In short, Tocqueville’s view was that the commercial mentality singled out by Montesquieu (and, before him, by the Jansenist Pierre Nicole and the Epicurean Bernard Mandeville) was reinforced in America by local political experience, by activities in associations, by religion, and by family.
I could say much — and have said much in the two books mentioned above — about the decline of local self-government and of associational life. I could say something as well about American religion and the rise of the drug culture. But I have tried the patience of my readers already — so I will narrow my perspective and come to the point.
The deepest source of our present discontents is the sexual revolution. Our abandonment of chastity as a norm has had dire political consequences. Take a close look at this chart, which I have lifted from a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
Focus your attention on the bottom line in green running across it. That line represents the bastardy rate — i.e., the percentage of children born out of wedlock each year. As you will see, in 1940 (before I was born) and in 1950 (shortly after I was born), something on the order of 3% of American children were born out of wedlock. By 1960, the number was up to about 5%. Then, it went up by leaps and bounds. In 1980, it was 18.4%. In 2007, it was 39.6%. Today it is somewhere in the neighborhood of 40%. As the editors at Pravda-on-the-Hudson proudly trumpet, bastardy is “the new normal.” In 2009, 53% of all children born to women under 30 were born out of wedlock.
Now think about this. How available was contraception in 1940, 1950, and 1960? Condoms existed, of course, but they were outlawed in many states, and the pill was not approved by the FDA until 1960. Abortions could be had — but not legally — and they were , in fact, exceptionally rare. This should give you pause for thought. Since Roe v. Wade in 1973, more than 50 million unborn children have been killed.
So, what did women do in 1940, 1950, and 1960? For the most part, they exercised an iron self-control. They forced interested men to respect their needs and concerns, and men complied. Now young women do not have it together well enough even to be able to take a pill every morning or a shot every month. As contraception and abortion have become available, as they have become a frequent resort, the proportion of out-of-wedlock births has soared. If the trend continues, bastardy will be the norm, and the family will be regarded as a relic from an earlier, benighted age.
The heart of the matter is this. As a people — thanks in part to our astonishing prosperity, thanks in part to technological change, and thanks in part to the ordinary human propensity for self-indulgence — we have abandoned the notion that impulse-control is a thing both good and necessary, and we have abandoned it in a sphere that is fundamental. We are creatures of habit. In the absence of sexual self-control, there is apt to be very little self-control of any kind. The young lady who is sexually self-indulgent is not apt to be disciplined enough to take a little white pill every day or to present herself at a clinic once a month. That there are a great many exceptions to this rule we all know. But the statistical pattern is nonetheless clear.
All of this began in the 1960s, and it has grown and grown and grown. We now live in a society educated by televisions series like Sex and the City and its successors, and it is in no way surprising that single mothers are almost as common as married mothers — and they now feel entitled to our respect and support. The most astonishing aspect of the November, 2012 election was that the Democratic Party took as one of its slogans: “Sluts vote!” And, by golly, they did.
Why, then, you may ask — if you even remember the question I posed some paragraphs back — should libertarians be social conservatives? The answer is simple. Single mothers and their offspring are bound for the most part to become wards of the state. For a man and a woman who are married to rear offspring is a chore. It may be fulfilling, but it is demanding and hard. It requires sacrifice and discipline. For a single person to do so and to do it well requires a species of heroism. For a single person to do so at all requires help — and that is where we are. For we now take it for granted that we are to pay for the mistakes that the single mother (and her sexual partner) made. We now, in fact, presume that she is entitled to our help — and we now have a political party in power built on that premise.We are to pay for her groceries through WIC (Women, Infants, Children), for her medical care through Medicaid, for the contraceptives that she does not have the discipline to use properly and for the morning-after pill should she slip up and need an abortion. Her right to be promiscuous trumps our right to the fruits of our own labor.
What I would say to libertarians is this: Liberty requires a responsible citizenry, and the sexual revolution (very much like the drug culture, which was and is its Doppelgänger) promotes irresponsibility of every kind. It promotes dependence, and it fosters an ethos in which those who exercise the virtues fostered by the market are punished for doing so and in which those who live for present pleasure are rewarded.
There are many reasons why Mitt Romney lost in 2012. Some, as I suggested in an earlier post, were his fault. Some of them were not. One of the latter is that the demographic deck was stacked against him in a fashion that it was not stacked against Ronald Reagan in 2008. If we do not find a way to reverse the sexual revolution, we are doomed. The future of liberty is contingent on the success of the social conservatives. The libertinism that some libertarians ostentatiously embrace provides the growth in the administrative entitlements state with its impetus. If to be a libertarian is to favor political liberty, then libertarians must embrace social conservatism. If to be a libertarian is to embrace sex, drugs, and rock and roll, then libertarians are the proponents — whether witting or not — of the soft despotism that threatens to engulf us.
As I said in my post on Saturday, the last thing that we need to do is to take the advice proffered to us by Mike Murphy that, to succeed, the Republican Party must surrender to the Zeitgeist. If the Republican Party does that, it should be abandoned.
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I heartily agree, and will note in passing that there is a certain Xenophontic quality to this sentence when viewed within the context of the results.
Agreed. But the question remains: how does one reverse the sexual revolution? There are, I think, some practical measures that might help:
– Tie all public assistance to behavior. Funnel more public assistance vouchers through faith-based organizations. Explicitly penalize promiscuity and bastardy.
– Build a family friendly tax structure that encourages the young college students who eventually get married to do so, and to have more children, younger.
– Stand our ground on abortion–the pro-life position has made huge gains since Roe and has won concessions.
– Eviscerate the public school system. When public monies are used to support education they should be vouchers to parents for private schools that explicitly include moral foundations in their lessons.
This, for the record, is a part of my mea culpa for missing the boat in August, September, and October when I suggested that Romney would win a landslide. I greatly underestimated the impact of the sexual revolution on American politics. When Barack Obama embraced Sandra Fluke and Planned Parenthood, he understood what he was doing.
In order to make sure that no act of fornication ever takes place we should bring back segregation to protect the young lasses from predatory men.
This is a stark, almost rude, thing to say in our times. But it is undeniably true.
Excellent post – thoughtful and persuasive.
I don’t think of myself as a social conservative first, but I’ve come to understand that the kind of society I want us to have requires that we be a certain kind of people. And that leads back to the traditional virtues. They weren’t arbitrary – the were the product of centuries of observation of the human condition. Human nature has not changed.
Regarding “contentless acceptance speech.” There have been very few people of such sterling decency as Romney who have ever run for office. But one’s virtues can also become one’s vices — or diminshment or undoing. Kesler nailed the problem immediately after Romney’s acceptance speech:
And, most especially:
And, most especially:
Charles put it very well.
Let me add my endorsement to Robert Lux’s observation: “There have been very few people of such sterling decency as Romney who have ever run for office.”
Edward Smith captured that very well commenting on your previous post. We should be researching and debriefing the election and the shortcomings of our candidate and the process by which we elected him. What we should all strive to remember is that Gov. Mitt Romney is as good a man as there is walking in America today.
Edward Smith captured that very well commenting on your previous post. We should be researching and debriefing the election and the shortcomings of our candidate and the process by which we elected him. What we should all strive to remember is that Gov. Mitt Romney is as good a man as there is walking in America today. ·
7 minutes ago
I feel that this definitely, like the other posts of Dr. Rahe, takes us forward in the discussion of future political strategy. As a “flaming social conservative”, I wholeheartedly concur with the mandate for us to embrace libertarianism. The terrible “seamless garment approach to pro-life” of the USCCB, that has done so much, along with other policy statements of the American Bishops over the past 40 years, is, in fact, in need of total denunciation. The comfy relationship of Catholics with Statists needs to be forcefully denounced here, there and everywhere if only for the salvation of so many confused laypersons. Salvation is accomplished “one soul at a time”, and “preferential option for the poor” is, in its most authentic sense, a mandate for local parishes to invest in a better social net in their own vicinity. This is the meaning of the Pope’s recent brilliant encyclical,Caritas et Veritate!
The final terrible remnant of the sexual revolution was the rejection of the Encyclical Humanae Vitae, and the embrace of a kind of phony appeal to the “conscience” of every couple to decide willy-nilly what degree of Catholic moral adherence they would be willing to embrace. Nonsense!
Spot on. There is a similar chart in Gertrude Himmelfarb’s The De-moralization of Society, only it stretches back to the 19th century. It is quite something to see the line stay at 3% for decades and decades and decades, straight as an arrow, and then see it shoot up so rapidly in the 60s.
I think I had some success reaching classmates of mine by drawing that line out on the blackboard, supporting it with observations from Putnam’s Bowling Alone on the decline of social capital, and all the social sciences research that tells us what we already know, namely that being born to a single mother is the single greatest factor in determining a child’s poverty, unhappiness, drug use, homelessness, and all other manner of grave ills. I bet the classmates still voted for Obama, but I can only hope I made them hesitate a little bit before doing so.
I’ve tried cajoling people back into the pews. I’ve tried shaming them. I’ve called them “arrogant asses” in emails to them (“What? You’re so much smarter than Wm. F. Buckley?”). I’ve reassured them I’m not interested in their salvation (that’s between them and God). I’ve had no success, but I guess I haven’t entirely given up on the idea of recovering a common moral standard, ’cause here I am commenting on it again.
The future of Western Civilization and the very idea of self-government is dependent on its roots in ethical monotheism, particularly in the self control –> self-abnegation –> heroic self-sacrifice embodied (literally) in Christianity and to a less obvious extent in Judaism. It is one of those profound paradoxes of life that self-interest is best served by self-denial.
Socialism is the serpent with the apple. You can’t fight that with nothin’. If you (and particularly your kids) aren’t occupying the pews this weekend, you’re part of the problem. We’re falling into disarray because even people on our side have rejected the Tao.
Additionally, completely off topic, somehow Prof. Rahe manages to write posts that wildly overshoot the normal ~700ish word rule and gets people to read them!
Well done. But a certain, every more significant portion of the bastardy rate is people who choose to have children without being married.
Remoralizing our vocabulary, as you are doing, is a start.
I am not optimistic about the libertarians. Libertarians start with the assumption that no just law can teach morality. Pointing out that the laws, by nature, are moral teachers, only provokes anger.
P.S. I have some success on the gay marriage issue by pointing to the implications of that legal change for sex ed. If we taught chastity until eighteen or twenty one, things would be different. But when we teach twelve-year-old girls that sex is natural, healthy, and enjoyable, and we teach that homosexuality is perfectly acceptable, think of what is being learn. This is both decadence and depravity.
But how does one reverse a sexual revolution?
I really only see three options:
1) From the ground up. That would essentially require a religious revival or infiltration of cultural institutions that educate the next generation.
2) From the top down. That would require actually winning an election and using the force of government to engage in our own brand of social engineering.
3) In the aftermath of a collapse. If there is an economic collapse, people would tend to gravitate towards faith and stable social structures. There is no room for indulgence in a society burdened by scarcity.
Paul Rahe should familiarize himself with Herbert Spencer’s Social Statics and his Sins of The Legislators for explanations for why we cannot have a free society with subsidized illegitimacy.
Excellent post Prof. Rahe. Unfortunately, I see no immediate change. More out of wedlock children, more repressive wealth transfer schemes to support never married women, progressively less businesses to soak, so on and so forth.
The ultimate truth is this: The current American welfare state and Feminist backed matriarchal social construct can’t continue. It is a self re-enforcing death spiral that will end with most of America looking like black America. Think Detroit only on a national scale.The American welfare state ultimately isn’t self supporting and its crash will make Greece look like Switzerland in comparison to what will happen here. And once it has hit bottom I don’t see America restarting because by that time most individuals will be hopelessly damaged by their up bringing in single mother raised households to ever become productive citizens.
Prof. Rahe, while I commend you for having this conversation, it will likely do no good whatsoever until married and conservative women convince other women that embracing libertine, pro-state, sex-positive Feminism is bad for them and society.
I’m going to be sending you a PM about life in Switzerland…
This ties to Peter Robinson’s earlier post about the declining birthrate. Stay married, have and raise kids to be responsible tax-paying citizens, play by the rules, and you’re a chump.
“Only through obedience will you come to understand the strangeness of God’s providence.” –Fr. Dwight Longenecker
Brings to mind Disraeli’s ripost when an opponent claimed that he “would either hang or die of some loathsome disease.” To which Disraeli replied “that depends sir, on whether I embrace your principles or your mistress.”
The key is to restore the family as an economic unit and that cannot be done without getting rid of affirmative action for women. A way around this could be to tax things other than income.
Prof. Rahe, while I commend you for having this conversation, it will likely do no good whatsoever until married and conservative women convince other women that embracing libertine, pro-state, sex-positive Feminism is bad for them and society. ·
11 minutes ago
Edited 7 minutes ago
I asked a question some months back that bears repeating here: is there a natural peak for dependence in society, or will it rise until the weight of it causes collapse of the society? I think it possible (probable? Who knows…) that a sort of equilibrium will be reached. Perhaps we will find out over the next four years.
What defines a social conservative and what defines a libertarian? It is entirely possible to be a libertarian and support all of the social conservative positions, except two: (1) it is the proper role of government to use its coercive force to shape social mores and (2) the government actually has the ability to shape social mores.
Does social conservatism have to do with government action, which I believe is the common view, or is a social conservative someone who simply believes in the principles of prudence and self-discipline (among other things)?
I see nothing wrong with shaming, it is a communities way of enforcing morality. But when you tell me it is the government’s job to enforce those morals, I soundly reject that notion. Am I a social conservative, a libertarian, or a social conservative libertarian?
Does social conservatism have to do with government action, which I believe is the common view, or is a social conservative someone who simply believes in the principles of prudence and self-discipline (among other things)?
I see nothing wrong with shaming, it is a communities way of enforcing morality. But when you tell me it is the government’s job to enforce those morals, I soundly reject that notion. Am I a social conservative, a libertarian, or a social conservative libertarian? ·
3 minutes ago
Government may not be able to enforce morality, but it can certainly encourage or discourage it. When I was in high school, when a girl became pregnant, she had to drop out until the baby was born. One of the regulations brought in by the Great Society ruled that out, and now they flaunt their baby bumps.
Government should act as the wall around the garden. It’s still up to the people to husband the land to produce an increase.
Progressives will counter, what about the children? I ask, how many children that I didn’t make must I be forced to support? Biologically women can have multiple children with multiple sex partners. More and more they are doing exactly that. And yet, what about the children? Well, what about the women? This is organized chaos meant to uproot the civil society. And it is working.