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I just finished Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West last night. Overall, I think it’s a very good book and one that people on both the Left and Right will benefit from reading. The book is not full of pop-culture references and humorous or snarky asides, which may disappoint regular readers of his G-File newsletter. It’s definitely a serious book, more in the style of his first title, Liberal Fascism, than his second, The Tyranny of Cliches. While I generally agree with the overall premise and conclusions, I do have a few quibbles about some of his writing decisions. Before I get into those, here’s a quick summary.
The basic premise is that we have reached a pinnacle when it comes to finding a way for humanity to prosper, and that if we aren’t careful we will throw it all away. He starts by observing that for most of human existence, life has been pretty miserable. We first appeared about 250,000 years ago, and for 99 percent of that time nothing changed. He points to about 300 years ago, when what he refers to as “the Miracle” happened, that life really started to improve drastically. The values of the Enlightenment combined with the economic benefits of capitalism combined in a place where they were allowed to develop (England) and then were given a true home here in America where they have flourished and changed the world. But the “Miracle” goes against human nature. We didn’t evolve in such a way to ensure the “Miracle” happened and if we let human nature take its course, we’ll lose what we have gained.
In fact, Goldberg makes a good case that we’ve already dropped below the pinnacle. The progressive movement of the early 20th century damaged the balanced structure that the Founders designed by letting an administrative state transform into a shadow government unchecked by the formal system defined in our Constitution. In that sense, I found the book to be kind of depressing. At this point, it would take a new revolution to free ourselves from the bureaucracy that we’ve allowed to take over so much of our formal government, and there’s no sign that people have the slightest interest in doing anything of the sort. Unfulfillable promises to “drain the swamp” aside, the administrative state is here to stay.
This biggest critique I have with Suicide of the West is the way Goldberg chose to start it. He explicitly states “There is no God in this book.” He makes his case without arguing that rights are “God given” or that the “Miracle” was predestined. I can understand why he wants to avoid the fallacy of appeal to authority, but that sentence is not true. God definitely is in the book. He admits as much in the conclusion, pointing out that without the societal changes wrought by Judaism and even more so by Christianity, the “Miracle” would not have been possible. Given that, the decision to start the book with a statement that will rub many evangelical Christians the wrong way seems an odd one.
Goldberg goes into great depth to support his arguments, and backs up his conclusions with considerable research. Some of it, such as the analysis of the positions of Burnham and Schumpter, can get a little dry. Like Sahara-Desert dry. And there is the point where Goldberg says that the “list [of Human Universals] is too long to reprint here,” followed by two solid pages of the list. Those missteps aside, the book is well done. Overall, the tone is a scholarly one. This is not a fiery tome that lends itself to sound bites and memes.
The second half of the book focuses on the fact that the “Miracle” isn’t self-sustaining. Just like capitalism has creative destruction, the “Miracle” allows ideas to flourish that are detrimental to the success it brings. It doesn’t change human nature, and if we lose our sense of gratitude for all the factors that led to the “Miracle” we’ll go back to our natural states of tribalism and authoritarianism. The identity politics of the left are incompatible with the “Miracle,” as is the authoritarian nationalism showing up in Europe and already exists in most of the non-western world. No one will even accuse Goldberg of being a MAGA-hat-wearing Trump supporter but the book isn’t an attack on Trump. (He started writing it before Trump even announced he was running for president.) He’s pretty clear in saying that he doesn’t see Trump as being a positive factor in all this but he does point out that Trump isn’t causing the problems. He’s just symptomatic of them.
I’m going to have to read the book again to clarify some of the ideas and where those lead. For example, it struck me early on that there is a tension between the idea that the “Miracle” increased freedom by allowing us to have profitable interactions with strangers, to not put friends and family first or give them special favors, and the conservative idea that the disintegration of the nuclear family has been bad for society. Goldberg does spend time talking about the importance of the family and other moderating institutions. There’s clearly a balance that needs to be established and better maintained. One interesting omission (in my mind anyway) is Federalism. He makes no mention of any level of government outside the Federal one. I think that might be part of the balance we need to restore to help keep the effects of tribalism at bay.
As I said at the beginning, I recommend this book for people across the political spectrum who are interested in serious discussion of the big picture issues today. I’m looking forward to hearing what other Ricochet members have to say.