War, civilization, and the left

War, civilization, and the left. By Roger Kimball.

Frank Buckley, a prolific author and law professor at George Mason University, … does not predict a second American secession, exactly, but he shows, convincingly, I think, how it might come about. “The bitterness” of our life together, “the contempt for opponents, the growing tolerance of violence, all invite us to think that we’d all be happier were we two different countries.”

There is something to that. And something to Buckley’s admonitory conclusion: “In all the ways that matter, save for the naked force of the law, we are already divided into two nations, just as much as in 1861.” …

There’s a lot of talk of force today, as discussion and elections are replaced by rulers just doing whatever they want to and daring anyone to do anything about it. Elections are a mock civil war, where we count up how many would be on each side — but one rigged election shattered that safety mechanism in the US.

Thinking about our situation puts me in mind of Walter Bagehot’s cheery but clear-eyed masterpiece Physics and Politics (1872) …. Bagehot traces the evolution of civilization from its rude and violent beginnings to his age, what he calls “the age of discussion,” when making a point typically counted for more in political life than the point of one’s sword.

Bagehot’s subject was not “natural selection” in any technical sense but rather “the political prerequisites of progress, and especially of early progress,” where by “progress” Bagehot meant both advancement in knowledge and technical know-how and advancements in the institution of liberty.

Accordingly, a lot of Physics and Politics is concerned with beginnings: with the slow, hard first chapters of civilization. It is difficult for us, the beneficiaries of many centuries of political ingenuity, to imagine with what difficulty a polity of any sort was forged and maintained. In early times, Bagehot wrote,

the quantity of government is much more important than its quality. What you want is a comprehensive rule binding men together. . . . What this rule is does not matter so much. A good rule is better than a bad one, but any rule is better than none. . . . How to get the obedience of men is the hard problem; what you do with that obedience is less critical.

This first step — inaugurating law, custom, and habit — is the hardest, but history proper begins with the next step: “What is most evident,” Bagehot observes, “is not the difficulty of getting fixed law, but getting out of a fixed law; not of cementing . . . a cake of custom, but of breaking the cake of custom; not of making the first preservative habit, but of breaking through it, and reaching something better.” …

Organized violence is necessary for the formation and protection of civilization:

He has many politically incorrect things to say about the civilizing — or at least order-inducing — effects of violence and the hard road any population faces in forging a national identity.

The perennial problem — and the admonitory theme of Physics and Politics— is that man, the strongest and smartest of the animals, “was obliged to be his own domesticator; he had to tame himself.”

Consequently, Bagehot says in an observation that I often quote and that ought to make us pause and think, “history is strewn with the wrecks of nations which have gained a little progressiveness at the cost of a great deal of hard manliness, and have thus prepared themselves for destruction as soon as the movements of the world gave a chance for it.”

This was an insight that Kipling expanded upon in his great poem “The Gods of the Copybook Headings.”

            . . . They promised perpetual peace.

They swore, if we gave them our weapons,

that the wars of the tribes would cease.

But when we disarmed They sold us and

delivered us bound to our foe,

And the Gods of the Copybook Headings

said: “Stick to the Devil you know.” …

There is a great deal in Physics and Politics to shock readers inclined to a pacific view of human development or a politically correct understanding of life. “Let us consider,” he writes in a famous passage,

in what sense a village of English colonists is superior to a tribe of Australian natives who roam about them. Indisputably in one, and that a main sense, they are superior. They can beat the Australians in war when they like; they can take from them anything they like, and kill any of them they choose. As a rule, in all the outlying and uncontested districts of the world, the aboriginal native lies at the mercy of the intruding European. Nor is this all. Indisputably in the English village there are more means of happiness, a greater accumulation of the instruments of enjoyment, than in the Australian tribe. The English have all manner of books, utensils, and machines which the others do not use, value, or understand. And in addition . . . there is a general strength which is capable of being used in conquering a thousand difficulties, and is an abiding source of happiness.

In fact, the importance of military prowess in binding a population into a society is a leitmotif in Physics and Politics. …

Bagehot was undeceived about the exigencies that face a nation at war. “So long as war is the main business of nations, temporary despotism — despotism during the campaign — is indispensable.”

“Civilization begins,” Bagehot writes, “because the beginning of civilization is a military advantage” — an unflattering thought that many will find shocking. …

Our societies in the west are the winners in a long series of wars. If our ancestors hadn’t formed societies that were better at fighting wars, we wouldn’t be here, obviously.

The difficult insight that Bagehot is everywhere at pains to communicate is that not all things are possible at all times and all places. If political liberty is a precious possession, it is forged in a long, painful development of civilization, much of which is distinctly, and necessarily, illiberal. …

Virtue signalers not helpful:

Bagehot had some equally piquant observations about the moral limitations of the unbridled philanthropic impulse. “The most melancholy of human reflections,” he writes,

is that, on the whole, it is a question whether the benevolence of mankind does most good or harm. Great good, no doubt, philanthropy does, but then it also does great evil. It augments so much vice, it multiplies so much suffering, it brings to life such great populations to suffer and to be vicious, that it is open to argument whether it be or be not an evil to the world, and this is entirely because excellent people fancy they can do much by rapid action — that they will most benefit the world when they most relieve their own feelings.

There are two things to note about this passage. One is Bagehot’s observation about those “excellent people” who believe, mistakenly, that they benefit the world most when they flatter their own feelings of virtue. How much pain and misery this spirit of do-goodism has spread throughout the world!

Discussion, free speech, and parliaments make for better governance:

And the second, an important theme throughout Bagehot’s writings, concerns the advantages of what he calls elsewhere “slow government.” It was the American socialist Norman Thomas, I think, who cheerfully described communism as “democracy in a hurry.” Socialism’s velocity, Thomas thought, was a major part of what recommended it. Bagehot disagreed. “The essence of civilization,” he wrote in an essay on Matthew Arnold, “is dullness.” …

Bagehot’s point was that, in an advanced civilization, deliberateness, circumspection, and adherence to process are virtues that save us from the myopia of impulsiveness.

In 2008, when the Great Recession was just beginning, Rahm Emanuel, then Barack Obama’s chief of staff, gleefully said, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” What he meant was that a crisis makes people anxious and therefore vulnerable, and that it is easier in periods of crisis to exploit that vulnerability and push through initiatives to enlarge government and usurp freedom. …

How often have you heard a politician or government bureaucrat tell you that “Doing nothing is not an option”? In fact, as [Daniel] Hannan rightly observes, “Doing nothing is always an option, and often it is the best option.” This was something that Calvin Coolidge, one of my favorite presidents, acknowledged when he said to a busybody aide: “Don’t just do something; stand there!” …

Parliamentary government is valuable not only because it facilitates action but also, and increasingly, because it retards it. “If you want to stop instant and immediate action,” Bagehot advises, “always make it a condition that the action shall not begin till a considerable number of persons have talked over it, and have agreed on it. If those persons be people of different temperaments, different ideas, and different educations, you have an almost infallible security that nothing, or almost nothing, will be done with excessive rapidity.” …

Don’t know what you had ’til it’s gone:

That is not the end of the story, however, for, as Bagehot notes, if government by discussion is “a principal organ for improving mankind,” it is also “a plant of singular delicacy.” The question of how best to nurture this delicate plant is Bagehot’s final problem. Part of the answer is in facing up to the unpalatable realities about power that make civilization possible. The other part lies in embracing that “animated moderation,” that “union of life with measure, of spirit with reasonableness,” which assures that discussion will continue without descending into violence or anarchy. It seems like a small thing. But then achieved order always does — until it is lost. …

As we look around at the many assaults on free discussion today, the prospects for the continuation of our regime of liberty seems up for grabs in a more fundamental way than at any time since World War II. It was only a few years ago that the United Nations pondered an international law against blasphemy — against blasphemy! — to defend Islam against its detractors. …

Free discussion is an integral ingredient, a veritable pillar of liberty. But that freedom is under serious threat today by religious fanatics, overweening government bureaucrats, and a complacent populace.

The politically correct have completely lost sight of these facts. Religiously convinced of their righteousness and informed by a media that panders to their point of view and guides their thoughts, they are recklessly messing with the governance of what has been, to this point, the most successful civilization ever. It’s a train wreck.

Some libertarians have also lost sight of these facts. Libertarian societies fare poorly in war and pandemics, which is perhaps why there aren’t any.