The Sad Retreat

Do not go gentle into that good night / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

 

~ Dylan Thomas

Thomas’ villanelle to his dying father is one of the most iconic English poems of the 20thcentury. It is also curiously relevant today, though not in a literal sense. The traditional American zeitgeist is the willingness to step forward fearlessly into the unknown, and in doing so to illuminate it and to dispel infantile terror of the dark. Sadly, the contemporary spirit is one of moribund confidence and the acceptance of stagnation.

There was nothing more indicative of the American spirit than the opening lines of Star Trek: The Original Series: “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” The root of the phrase’s power lies in action, an acceptance that man is capable of seizing control and carrying himself into space. Yet, despite the television series’ timing, the American people were not going boldly into the night, or darkness of space, but rather were starting a retreat that continues into the present.

The retreat is not an apparent one. To all appearances there has been no pell-mell flight from a battlefield with weaponry and protective gear to signal a loss of confidence. To quote Kevin D Williamson, “Nothing happened.” It is the lack of action, the stagnation, that signals a retreat occurred.

In his book Slouching to Gomorrah (1996), the late Robert Bork (1927 – 2012) catalogued the ways he believed America had declined since his youth. Buried among the musings are some anecdotes about Bork’s time at Yale as a young law professor in the late 1960s. In that decade, according to Bork, the university had quietly relaxed its admissions criteria and admitted applicants who would not have qualified under the previous standard. From a position of authority, Bork observed as these young people – mostly men as the problem was concentrated at the undergraduate level and the only women at Yale at the time were graduate students – struggled academically due to lack of adequate preparation. Many of these new students began to flunk as individual faculty refused to dilute their syllabi or grading standards.

As he explained, the stakes at the time were particularly high: in 1968, the time of Bork’s first semester, the draft and deployment to Vietnam would immediately and ruthlessly punish academic failure. Additionally, the students described largely came from middle-America and bore the full weight of their families and local communities’ expectations, causing failure to be particularly humiliating. Although Bork rejected the Marxist and anti-intellectual aspects of the 1968 student protests, he presented a hidden facet to the protestors whom he identified as young people angry at a system they felt had betrayed them and doomed them to failure. The message extracted from a well-intentioned policy change was that these people were ones who couldn’t – they couldn’t keep up with their peers, they couldn’t succeed, and all the indicators of their time pointed toward a truncated future. In short, they didn’t matter; they were not strictly necessary for broader society. Aside from property destruction, the turn toward Marxism and anti-intellectualism was a retreat, a flight from reality. With the rout – entirely self-imposed since the simple solution to the problem was to go to the library and catch up, rather than go burn the books, which is the choice the students made – the United States unknowingly set off on a path of becoming a nation of “cannots.”

To present an analogy, in the training of thoroughbred racehorses, a promising colt is raced against another, less able one in order to build the former’s confidence. The second horse is not only expected to lose, he is rewarded for doing so, but very often at the cost of his spirit and willingness to compete. This analogy is somewhat limited since the Yale student protestors of the 1960s chose the role of second horse themselves, but the result, anger, wanton destruction, and futile rage in the face of their inadequacies, are human indicators of broken spirit and loss of competitive edge. These two traits have, since the 60s, trickled down through all echelons of American society, accompanied by all the symptoms of anger and unnecessary misery. The American people have become the second horse.

All statistical evidence indicates that the quality of life in America is higher than ever before; we have record low rates of crime, better healthcare, and unparalleled access to consumer goods and luxury technologies. Under circumstances such as these, we should possess an equally high level of national confidence and happiness. But this is not the case. Currently, a Gallup poll from late 2017 shows that, despite the country’s increased prosperity under the new administration, subjective, or perceived, happiness has declined since the 2016 election. In other words, middle America is no happier now than it was pre-November 2016: it is less happy. Combined with the rise of “deaths of despair (official term for deaths from addiction or suicide in middle-aged or younger people)” and the mediatized claims of loss of opportunity due to – O tempora, o mores – technology and the new economy, the story is one of surrender, nothing else.

In the narrative, especially the one surrounding the 2016 election, the story is one of middle-America neglected and in need of special favors and treatment. As part of this picture, its authors and advocates on both sides of the political aisle sneer at the idea of self-determination, in the way of Michael Brendan Dougherty in the piece that Williamson rebutted with his “Nothing happened.” Technology is a particular target of Dougherty’s ire as somehow destructive to a utopic version of American community and family – his most recent article from May 1, 2018, was an apology for using the internet as a work medium – but ignoring the path to financial independence and economic integration that it provides. Hatred of technology and change, a desire to return to the “good old days” is a symptom of the retreat.

Today the logical and economic fallacy, identified by AEI’s Arthur Brooks, of “helping poor people” instead of “needing them” is dominant. Yet, it is a betrayal at all levels of the American ethos. Protectionism, insularity, and above all else, a desire to justify the degraded state of the American worker, pinning the fault on a wide range of people and things, are all signs of the willful betrayal of the American spirit. Although there are individual Americans who are leaders in technology and new industry, the American people are collectively falling behind, and our policy-makers are rewarding us for becoming the second horse through protectionism and populist speeches that reinforce the notion that there is a wronged group of “left behind.” We are no longer going “boldly where no man has gone before;” instead we are docilely being led into the “good night,” all while thinking that we are raging against it. Without a change, the pasture of irrelevance awaits us.

The Impossible Trinity of Liberal Democracy

In the first part of my series on democracy published a few years ago, I made a distinction between four senses in which the term “democracy” is used. To briefly recap, I made they were: a) a term of empty political praise for policies which partisans like b) an institutional decision-making process emphasizing the primacy of majoritarian opinion c) a generic term for the type of procedures which have been prevalent in the west, and d) an overarching term for the ethical commitments of liberals. In that series, I focused on the tension b) and d), mostly ignoring a) and c). (For Present purposes, my highly speculative musings on anarchism are irrelevant.

In a recent podcast of the Ezra Klein show  (which I highly recommend) discussing his book The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How To Save It, Harvard political theorist Yascha Mounk and Ezra Klein were debating how pessimistic we should be about the prospects for the future of American Democracy. I don’t really wish to comment on whether we should be pessimistic or not, but I want to make a further distinction that clarifies some of the disagreements and points towards a deeper issue in the workings of democratic institutions. I will argue that democracy consists of a liberal, majoritarian, and procedural dimension and these dimensions are not reconcilable for very long.

Mounk makes a similar distinction to the one I made between democratic majoritarianism and liberalism as a reason to be pessimistic. Klein tended to push back, focusing on the ways in which modern American political culture is far more ethically liberal than it has ever been, as seen through the decline in racism since the middle of the twentieth century and decline in homophobia since the 1990s. Mounk, however, emphasized how respect for procedure in the American political process has declined during the Trump Era, as evidenced by Trump’s disrespect for the political independence of courts and agencies like the Department of Justice.

However, throughout Klein’s and Mounk’s debate, it became clear that there was another distinction which needed to be made explicitly, and one which I have tended to heavily under-emphasize in my own thinking on the feasibility of democracy. It seems to me there are at least three dimensions by which to judge the functioning of democracies which are important to distinguish:

  1. Majoritarianism—the extent to which a democracy is sensitive to majority public opinion. Democracy, in this dimension, is simply the tendency to translate majority opinion to public policy, as Mounk puts it.
  2. Liberalism—this refers to the ethical content towards which democracies in the west try to strive. This is the extent to which citizens are justly treated as moral equals in society; whether minority religious freedoms are respected, racial and ethnic minorities are allowed equal participation in society (economically and politically), and the extent to which general principles of liberal justice (however they may be interpreted) are enacted.
  3. Legal proceduralism—the extent to which political leaders and citizens respect the political independence of certain procedures. This dimension heavily emphasizes the liberal belief in the rule of law and the primacy of process. This can include law enforcement agencies such as the Department of Justice or the FBI, courts, and respect for the outcomes of elections even when partisan opponents are victorious.

It seems that there are reasons why one would want a democracy to retain all three features. Majoritarianism could be desirable to ensure stability, avoiding populist revolutions and uprising, and perhaps because one thinks it is just for government to be accountable to citizens. Liberalism, clearly, is desirable to ensure the society is just. Proceduralism is desirable to maintain the stability of the society given that people have deep political and philosophical disagreements.

Klein and Mounk’s debate, considering this explicit triadic distinction, can be (crudely) seen as Mounk initially emphasizing the tension between majoritarianism and liberalism in modern democracies. Klein pushes back saying that we are more liberal today than we’ve ever been, and perhaps the current majoritarian populist turn towards Trump should be put in context of other far more illiberal majoritarian populist impulses in the past. Mounk’s response seems to be that there’s also been a decline in respect for legal procedure in modern American politics, opening a danger for the instability of American democracy and a possible rise of authoritarianism.

First, it seems to me that both Mounk and Klein overemphasize respect for procedure in the past. As Robert Hasnas has argued, it has never been the case that anyone treats the law as independent simply because “the law is not a body of determinate rules that can be objectively and impersonally applied by judges” and therefore “what the law prescribes is necessarily determined by the normative predispositions of the one who is interpreting it.” There is always an ethical, and even a partisan political dimension, to how one applies procedure. In American history, this can be seen in ways that courts have very clearly interpreted law in motivated ways to justify a partisan, often illiberal, political view, such as Bowers v. Hardwick. There has always been a tendency for procedures to be applied in partisan ways, from the McCarthyite House Unamerican Committee, to the FBI’s persecution of civil rights leaders. Indeed, has Hasnas argues, the idea that procedures and laws can be entirely normatively and politically independent is a myth.

It is true, however, that Mounk does present reason to believe that populism makes disrespect for these procedures explicit. Perhaps one can say that while procedural independence is, in a pure sense, a myth, it is a constructive myth to maintain stability. People believing that elections are not independent, Trump’s disrespect for the independence of courts and justice, allows for a disintegration of those institutions into nothing but a Carl Schmitt-style, zero-sum war for power that can undermine stability of political institutions.

On the other hand, it seems worth emphasizing that there is often a tension between respect for procedure and the ethics of liberalism. Klein points out how there was large respect for legal procedure throughout American history that heavily undermined ethical liberalism, such as southerners who filibustered anti-lynching laws. Indeed, the justification for things such as the fugitive slave law was respect for the political independence of the legal right to property in slaves. All the examples of procedure being applied in politically biased and illiberal ways given moments ago support this point There is nothing in the notion that legal and electoral procedures are respected that guarantees those procedures in place will respect liberal principles of justice.

I remain agnostic as to whether we should be more pessimistic about the prospects for democracy in America today than at any other point in American history. However, at the very least, this debate reveals an impossible trinity, akin to the impossible trinity in monetary policy, between these three dimensions of democracy. If you hold majority opinion as primary, that includes populist urges to undermine the rule of law. Further, enough ink has been spilled on the tensions between majoritarianism and liberalism or effective policy. If you hold respect for procedure as primary, that includes the continuation procedures which are discriminatory and unjust, as well as procedures which restrict and undermine majority opinion. If you hold the justice of liberalism as primary, that will generate a tendency for morally virtuous liberals to want to undermine inequitable, unjust procedures and electoral outcomes and to want to restrict the ability of majorities to undermine minority rights.

The best a conventional democrat can do, it seems to me, is to pick two. A heavily majoritarian democracy where procedures are respected, which seems to be the dominant practice in American political history, is unlikely to be very ethically liberal. An ethically liberal and highly procedural government, something like a theoretically possible but practically unfeasible liberal dictator or perhaps a technocratic epistocracy (for which Jason Brennan argues), is a possible option but might be unstable if majorities see it as illegitimate or ethically unpalatable to procedural democrats. An ethically liberal but majoritarian democracy seems unworkable, given the dangers of populism to undermine minority rights and the rational ignorance and irrationality of voters. This option also seems to be what most western democracies are currently trending towards, which rightly worries Mounk since it is also likely to be extremely unstable. But if there’s a lesson to be learned from the injustice of American history and the rise of populism in the west it’s that choosing all three is not likely to be feasible over the long term.

Explaining Jair Bolsonaro to non-Brazilians

I wrote about Jair Bolsonaro here some time ago, but I believe that, with the recent political changes in Brazil, it is worthy to write about him again.

Jair Messias Bolsonaro is a pre-candidate to the Brazilian presidency. Elections will happen in October, and so, following Brazilian electoral law, his candidacy won’t be official until later this year. However, it is already very public that he is going to run for president of the country.

Bolsonaro has been a congressman from Rio de Janeiro state since the 1990s, but he only achieved national notoriety fairly recently, during the last decade of government by the Worker’s Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, PT, in Portuguese). A former captain of the Brazilian army, he entered politics mainly to defend the interests of his colleagues. As with much of South America at some point between the 1960s and 1980s, Brazil was ruled by the military from 1964 to 1985. Since those governments, there is a tendency of loss of prestige of the armed forces in the country. Bolsonaro defended simply better pay and better work conditions for his fellow soldiers.

In the 1990s he opposed several policies of the Fernando Henrique Cardoso (FHC) government. FHC was responsible for bringing Brazil closer to the Washington Consensus, modernizing the Brazilian economy in many ways. Bolsonaro, however, believed that FHC was selling Brazil to foreigners. Ironically, in that opinion, he was in the company of the Worker’s Party. When the Worker’s Party came to power in 2003, Bolsonaro remained in silence for quite a while. His public opposition to the Lula and Dilma governments began only when the Ministry of Education tried to send to public schools material concerning gender ideology. Bolsonaro and others saw in that an infringement of the separation between the responsibilities of church, government, and state.

Because of his opposition to gender ideology in public schools, Bolsonaro is constantly unjustly accused of misogyny and homophobia, something silly to say the least. Bolsonaro is not a hater of women and homosexuals, at least not more than the majority of the Brazilians. The only thing one can say about him is that, as with many Brazilians, he is very crude with his language. One anecdote might help to explain. When Bolsonaro was already father to four sons, he had his first daughter. Joking, he told his friends that “he’d got weaker.” To many in the Brazilian leftist press, this means that Bolsonaro thinks that women are lesser than men. The same press, however, is not as judicial with the language of other politicians, including former president Lula da Silva, who commonly makes much worse statements. Bolsonaro’s every statement has been scrutinized by people on the left searching for something to blame.

The truth is that apparently unknowingly, Bolsonaro was one of the first Brazilian politicians to consistently fight against Gramscianism. I explain. As I was saying before, from 1964 to 1985 Brazil was ruled by the military. This happened because since the 1920s Brazil was a target of influence by the USSR. Luís Carlos Prestes, one of the most important historical leaders of the Brazilian Communist Party (Partido Comunista Brasileiro, PCB, in Portuguese), trained in the Soviet Union in the 1930s. All leftist parties in Brazil today (including the Worker’s Party) have some historical connection to the PCB. The Soviets (and Chinese, and Cubans) intensified their pressure on Brazil in the 1950s and 1960s. The result was that the vast majority of Brazilian society urged the militaries to take power in 1964.

The armed forces were great in fighting the conventional war against the communists, defeating several guerrillas in the Brazilian interior. But they were simply awful in fighting the cultural war. Early on, many on the Brazilian left noticed that they shouldn’t fight the government in a conventional Marxist-Leninist style, trying to come to power by force. Instead, they should follow Italian socialist leader Antonio Gramsci, and get to power winning hearts and minds first. And so they did. While the soldiers were busy fighting guerrillas, communist occupied schools, universities, the press, and even churches (mainly the Roman Catholic) by the Liberation Theology.

Thanks to Gramsci and his followers, when the military regime was over, Brazilian culture was majorly leaning to the left. The Worker’s Party, publicly socialist, came to power not by force, but by votes. However, Marxism as an economic agenda died a long ago. Lula and Dilma know perfectly well that classical liberalism is the way to go in economics. The aim of the Worker’s Party and associated political groups – most of whom are economically illiterate – is to transform culture. In post-marxism, the “oppressed” are no longer the factory workers, but women, homosexuals, blacks and however fits their agenda for power. We have to sympathize with some of the leftist agenda in Brazil. Historically, thanks to the false capitalism practiced there, Brazil was not a good place for minorities. The individual was never privileged in Brazil. However, the leftist solution (socialism) only makes things worse. Many countries in Latin America, starting with Cuba and Venezuela, can testify to that.

Back to Jair Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro came to the opposition of the Worker’s Party because of the falsely progressive agenda the ruling party was trying to implement. However, since then, Bolsonaro is becoming more and more convinced of the entirety of the liberal-conservative agenda, including its economics. By liberal-conservative I mean the tradition of John Locke, Adam Smith, the Founding Fathers, Edmund Burke, Von Mises and others. Bolsonaro was intelligent and honest enough to cry that “the king is naked.” The Brazilian left doesn’t care about minorities. If they did, they would be conservative or libertarian. Classical liberal ideas have a proven record of helping the poor and the oppressed. Socialism continues to hurt everybody but the very few in power.

The leftist media covering Brazil is frightened and trying everything possible to denigrate Bolsonaro. However, so far their strategy is backfiring. Bolsonaro’s popularity in Brazil grows with every attack. On the internet, his followers call him “Mito” (Myth, in Portuguese). In every city that he visits he is followed by a large crowd of fans. In that sense, he is very much a Brazilian Donald Trump. The left insisted so much on talking about minorities that now the large minority that doesn’t fit into leftist stereotypes found his candidate.

Brazil has severe problems and one solution: rule of law. Bolsonaro seems to be not a populist, but someone who understands that society and economy need order to thrive. And it is becoming very apparent that, to the despair of the left, he might be the next Brazilian president.

The problem with Brazil (and it’s not socialism)

The problem with Brazil is not Luis Inacio Lula da Silva. It’s not the Worker’s Party. It’s not Socialism.

Certainly one of the most important politicians in Brazilian History was Getulio Vargas. Vargas came to power in a coup (that symptomatically most Brazilian historians call a revolution) in 1930. He ended up staying in power, without ever being elected by popular vote, until 1945. Then he peacefully resigned, not without electing his chosen successor, Eurico Gaspar Dutra. Vargas came back to power immediately after Dutra, and committed suicide while in office. Almost all Brazilian presidents from 1945 to 1964 were from Vargas’ close circle.

Brazilians to this day are still taught that Vargas was a hero, persecuted by an evil opposition. Initially, Vargas was some kind of Brazilian positivist. He was anti-liberal because liberalism is weak and slow. We need a strong technical government, able to identify problems and come with solutions fast. However, while in office, he became “the father of the poor,” a defensor of the lower classes. Nothing could be farther from the truth, of course, but that’s how Vargas is remembered by many.

One of my favorite interpretation of Brazil comes from Sergio Buarque de Holanda. According to Holanda, the problem with Brazil is that Brazilians are cordial. What he means by that is this: using Weber’s models of authority, he identified that Brazilians were never able to support a Legal-Rational authority. Vargas was seen as “a father.” not a president. The country is seen as a big family. Lula used a very similar vocabulary and tried to reenact Vargas’ populism.

As I mentioned, Holanda’s interpretation is Weberian. Weber’s most famous book is The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. The problem with Brazil is that it never went through a protestant reformation. And because of that, it never developed the “spirit of capitalism” that Weber describes. Brazil is still, to a great degree, stuck with traditional and charismatic forms of authority.

To be sure, Brazil has many features of a modern liberal state. Since late 18th century Portugal tried to copy these from more advanced nations, especially England. Brazil followed suit. But you can’t have the accidents without the substance. Unless Brazil actually goes through a transformation in its soul, it will never become the modern liberal state many want it to be. Quoting Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, “An ignorant people will always choose Rosas.”

Time for optimism in Brazil

If you only read left-leaning newspapers, things might appear dismal in Brazil right now. But I am very convinced that it isn’t so.

With former president Lula in jail, it becomes more and more likely that Jair Messias Bolsonaro will be Brazil’s next president.

I already wrote about Bolsonaro here. To sum things up, I don’t think that he is a libertarian champion. Far from it. There are many things about Bolsonaro that will displease those who are more market-friendly. He is still too nationalistic in his economic thinking. He fails to see how awful the military government in Brazil (1964-1985) was (even though the alternative – Brazil turning into a South-American USSR – was even worse). But Bolsonaro represents something extremely important: the left is losing the culture war in Brazil. After decades of hegemony in Brazil, Antonio Gramsci and the Frankfurt School seem to be on the ropes. People are so sick and tired of cultural Marxism that they are willing to elect someone whose agenda is to fight against it.

Maybe a world with Bolsonaro president is not the best of worlds. Maybe he is very much a Brazilian Donald Trump. But it is certainly good to know that cultural Marxism is turning against itself and that now Brazilians might be willing to elect a president that, although only moderately market-friendly, is not ashamed to call himself a conservative.