The year 1776 was the high watermark of the Enlightenment. Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations, and Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. Both works were grounded in the long tradition that tied the British people to historical lessons and cultural inheritance from Greece, Israel, and Rome, through the Magna Carta and the Renaissance, to the Glorious Revolution. A decade later, the French Revolution unleashed the destructive forces of democratic fervor unmoored from traditions and entirely dependent on unfettered human reason for moral judgments of right and wrong.
France’s degeneration into Napoleonic imperialism and Romanticism’s eclipse of reason by emotion marked the dream’s end in continental Europe. That path eventually led to Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Camus, Foucault, and Derrida. The Anglo-American sphere, meanwhile, avoided much of the destruction that overran Europe, developed economically, and drew the best minds and most ambitious workers from the continent to its universities, cities, and frontiers. Faith in human reason to overcome human failings came later to the English-speaking world as did the hubris that government could not just limit the worst of human nature but could improve human nature.
The spread of the industrial revolution and the green revolution from their bases in England and the United States have transformed the world at an accelerating rate, overcoming the direst predictions of overpopulation, mass starvation, and global catastrophe. Having overcome the worst excesses of twentieth-century government utopianism, more than a billion people have escaped extreme poverty in just the past five decades through the adoption of market institutions.
After the hopefulness of the 1990s, however, we have seen nearly 20 years of shattered hopes and diminishing expectations in the United States. Given the economic and cultural tumult of the past decade, in particular, it should not be surprising that a number of current writers have been looking across the centuries for guidance. Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West and Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now are two of the recent additions to the debate on causes of the current crisis and prospects for the future of America, the West, and humanity.
In short, they think Americans have turned their collective back on rationality and inclusiveness in favor of tribal identities. Goldberg traces the origin of our present good fortune not just to the industrial and agricultural revolutions, but to the Lockean Revolution, after our namesake, John Locke. Locke represents the view (embodied in the Declaration of Independence) that rights are inherent in being human, not granted by government. Goldberg calls the development since then a “miracle” because it rests on the unnatural foundations of democracy, capitalism, and human rights. He writes in the introduction:
The world we live in today is unnatural, and we stumbled into it more or less by accident. The natural state of mankind is grinding poverty punctuated by horrific violence, terminating with early death. It was like this for a very, very long time.
Pinker also sees the modern order as rare and fragile in a world of increasing disorder (entropy) as encapsulated in the second law of thermodynamics. He attributes this order to the Enlightenment values of science, reason, and humanism. His priority in Enlightenment Now is to make clear just how statistically good these values have made the modern order compared to the bulk of human history and only secondarily to defend them.
What Goldberg realizes in his conservatism and Pinker misses in his rationalism is the importance of local institutions like the family, church, school, town meeting, pub, or coffee house in fostering values through community. Critics of capitalism like R.H. Tawney, George Orwell, and E.P. Thompson have seen worth in these little platoons just as Edmund Burke, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Robert Nisbet have.
Government tends toward monopoly in all areas because it has a monopoly on the means of coercion, meaning it tends to displace local institutions. Each of us, then, has a role to play through our work, our volunteering and donations, and our care for our neighbors. To the extent we can improve conditions without relying on coercion or force, we help our local institutions and communities compete with government and so protect the private space that has made much of the miraculous progress over since 1776 possible.