When did we give up? And can we reenergize Western society?
As we approach 2016, the West is experiencing a civilizational loss of self-confidence, arising from a narcissistic fatalism and cataclysmic failure of institutional leadership.
At every turn, it seems, the weak and uncertain leadership of the West is submitting to the strength and evil certainty of radical Islam, of which Winston Churchill warned more than a century ago “no stronger retrograde force exists in the world.”
We began giving up our self-confidence a century ago when the Western governments who fought on both sides of World War I abandoned classical liberalism and its associated political philosophy of constitutional liberty and replaced it with autocratic top-down, state controlled central planning.
Modern liberalism, as practiced by the Democratic Party in the United States in 2015 and 2016 and its state-centric counterparts in Europe, bears little resemblance to classical liberalism.
“The ideology of classical liberalism is closer to what today is a current of conservatism in the United States,” Richard Huddleson wrote in his 1999 book, Modern Political Philosophy.
Central to the classical liberalism of the nineteenth century is a commitment to the liberty of individual citizens. Freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly were core commitments of classic liberalism, as was the underlying conception of just government as the protection of the liberties of individual citizens. Also central to classical liberalsim was a commitment to a system of free markets as the best way to organize economic life.
There is little wonder that progressivism reached its early zenith under the direction of Democratic President Woodrow Wilson, the same commander-in-chief who supervised the collective resource management imposed upon the American people throughout World War I.
The constitutionally destructive consequence of World War I was noted by Leonard Liggio, who wrote recently at the Acton Institute:
Classical liberalism was the dominant philosophy in the United States and England, really, until about the First World War. The war, unfortunately, was a disaster for liberalism, because it disrupted constitutional order. All the countries at war used extreme measures of repression. Even England and America created police states on the model of Germany or their Czarist allies and trampled liberty underfoot. At the same time, they trampled economic liberty by allocating resources through central planning, again modeled on the German desperation as they were cut off by the wartime blockade. In fact, Lenin viewed the German wartime operations of centralization as the model for his Bolshevik regime. It gave him what he felt were practical models for creating centralized direction of the economy once the Bolshevik revolution occurred.
So the First World War was this great watershed, a great tragedy for all who were killed or wounded on the battlefield, for the many who died or were disabled by the epidemics that followed, and for the economic waste that prevented investment in the postwar period and led to the great depression and to movements toward greater government control. So, everywhere, liberalism was put on the defensive by this catastrophe.
The bulwark of classical liberalism is constitutional liberty, which is defined as “such freedom as is enjoyed by the citizens of a country or state under the protection of its constitution; the aggregate of those personal, civil, and political rights of the individual which are guarantied by the constitution and secured against invasion by the government or any of its agencies.”
“I hold that governments are meant to be, and must remain, the servants of the citizens; that states and federations only come into existence and can only by justified by preserving the ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ in the homes and families of individuals. The true right and power rest in the individual. He gives of his right and power to the State, expecting and requiring thereby in return to receive certain advantages and guarantees,” Winston Churchill wrote in his classic 1936 essay, “What Good’s a Constitution?”, a definitive description of constitutional liberty.
“The 19th century was the century of classical liberalism. Partly for that reason it was also the century of ever-increasing economic and political liberty, relative international peace, relative price stability and unprecedented economic growth,” John Goodman, founder of the National Center for Policy Analysis and its president for 31 years, now head of the Goodman Institute, wrote recently.
“By contrast, the 20th century was the century that rejected classical liberalism. Partly for that reason, it was the century of dictatorship, depression and war. Nearly 265 million people were killed by their own governments (in addition to all the deaths from wars!) in the 20th century – more than in any previous century and possibly more than in all previous centuries combined,” Goodman noted.
The 21st century, unfortunately, has seen an accelerating decline in Western self-confidence, one seen in the cringe inducing weakness of its political leaders. They respond to the challenge of radical Islam with the same type of appeasement shown by British prime minister Neville Chamberlain to Hitler in the 1930s, rather than the strength and moral certitude of his successor, Churchill, who ultimately helped lead the West to victory in World War II.
History shows that strength attracts followers. The latest example that confirms this maxim is the recent report that the Islamic terrorists at ISIS are actively planning to increase their attacks on innocent civilians in the West, in an attempt to provoke one final, huge decisive battle.
“Where is our modern Churchill to exercise the strength of the West to resist this terroristic swagger?” every day citizens in the United States and Europe wonder aloud.
More importantly, “Why have our political institutions produced such weak and feckless leaders?”
A recent Rasmussen Reports Poll indicates that dissatisfaction with President Obama’s leadership-or lack thereof- is at record levels and is on the rise. Dissatisfaction with European leaders is also high.
Several conservative authors in America, among them Mark Steyn, have observed this decline in the West, but none have offered a specific solution to reverse this trend.
A hint at the direction in which the resurrection of the West may be found comes, surprisingly, from two British authors, one of whom is a former cabinet minister in the government of British Labour prime minister Tony Blair.
Almost a decade ago British entrepreneur Richard Koch (no relation to the American Koch Brothers) and former United Kingdom cabinet member Chris Smith wrote a prescient book called Suicide of the West.
In it they argued:
One hundred years ago, most Westerners felt tremendous pride and confidence in their civilisation. They knew what it stood for, and they believed in it. Today that sense has gone.
That is largely because the six principal ideas which underpinned Western confidence – those of Christianity, optimism, science, economic growth, [classical] liberalism and individualism – have suffered a century of sustained attack. These ideas no longer inspire or unite the West as they once did.
In an exclusive email interview with Breitbart News, Koch, who is also a Huffington Post contributor, offers a surprisingly upbeat view of the future of Western Civilization as we close out 2015.
Restoring the self-confidence of the West, Koch says, is something that must originate with the individual, not the group.
“This is not a battle of empires or wars, which are no longer effective at winning hearts and minds,” Koch tells Breitbart News.
“It is a matter of inculcating calm self-confidence, individual and collective, and refusing to be drawn into all the sound and fury that can dismay and distract us,” Koch adds.
Radical Islam poses a threat to the West, Koch argues, put it has not yet reached the power of Nazism or communism in the 1930s. Koch tells Breitbart News:
I see radical Islam as a particularly nasty little virus, comparable to Nazism or communism in the 1920s (before they became really powerful). We can’t be complacent but we have to be careful in how we respond. We have a civilization and they don’t; we have the moral high ground. Their ideology is particularly repugnant and it will have very limited appeal in the West, if we maintain our values. There will always be a few people who want the excitement of an extreme cause and licence to kill, but terrorism is nothing new and it can be largely defeated, if not eliminated. But of course we have to deal with Isil – and cutting off their huge flow of money should be the top priority.
Koch argues a combination of individualism and “maintaining our values” will, in the long run, redeem the West.
While Koch excels at diagnosing the problems of the West, he understates the existential threat posed by radical Islam and offers an insufficient, passive prescription to remedy the West’s decline.
Koch views Western Civilization as something of a “self-correcting system.” But now, as its very existence is threatened by radical Islam, a more pro-active solution is demanded.
This is particularly true since, as Koch and Smith point out in Suicide of the West, the attacks on the principal ideas that brought the West to dominance come primarily from within—from individuals who have benefited financially from the very culture upon which their wealth was created. (Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook and other Silicon Valley technology oligarchs, as well as atheist progressive George Soros immediately come to mind as examples of this group.)
What is needed to reverse that decline is a very focused “back to basics” movement to restore believe in these six principal ideas – Christianity, optimism, science, economic growth, classical liberalism (in its political expression of constitutional liberty and its economic expression of free markets) and individualism – and more importantly, the transfer of belief in these seven principal ideas to subsequent generations.
Therein lies the rub.
In a popular culture subsumed by triviality – where most know a great deal about current entertainment trends and how to use their smartphones – but little else, “back to basics” is easier said than done.
Here’s one look at what “back to basics” means for the six principal ideas that built the West.
“Back to basics” in classical liberalism and constitutional liberty means the re-assertion of state sovereignty and individual rights in the face of increasing constitutional usurpations by the executive branch, statutorily unauthorized regulations, and a spineless and ineffective federal legislative branch.
“Back to basics” in Christianity translates into encouraging the growth and flourishing of Christianity in the West by removing the State’s power to exercise control over the operation of Christian churches and organizations and the conduct of individual Christians who are acting within the law.
It does not mean government approved enforcement of Christian belief on other citizens.
It also means a complete separation of church and state when it comes to the delivery of government sanctioned “social justice” programs. “Public private partnerships” where church organizations are paid lucratively to carry out liberal government policies, such as the Unholy Alliance between Christian “non-profits” and the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement.
In addition, it means ending the government persecution of Christians in business matters large and small, the most egregious of which is the recent actions by the State of Oregon forcing Christian bakers to pay an estimated $135,000 fine to a gay couple who demanded they bake a wedding cake for them, a demand they refused.
History shows that Christianity thrives when it is completely independent of government. When it becomes the “official” state religion, or “partners” with the state, it becomes corrupt, weak, and devoid of intellectual vigor.
Richard Koch and Leonard Liggio agree on the critical role played by Christianity in the rise of the West.
“Of all the civilizations around the world, why did only the Christian West become both free and prosperous?” Leonard Liggio asked at the Acton Institute.
“Many scholars have studied this and have come to the conclusion that this is due to the fact that the religious institutions were totally separate from, and often in conflict with, political institutions only in the Christian West. This created the space in which free institutions could emerge. The idea of independent religious institutions is absent even in Eastern Christianity; their religious institutions are part of the bureaucracy of the state,” Liggio wrote.
“In Western Europe, though, the religious institutions were autonomous among themselves, and totally independent from and often in opposition to state power. The result was the creation of a polycentric system. And whenever this system was threatened by claims of total empire by the political rulers, Christian philosophy was utilized as part of its defense,” Liggio added.
“So within that space, the economic institutions–often modeled on the religious institutions as autonomous entities–could flourish and survive,” Liggio concluded.
Coincident to the decline of Christianity is a rise of triviality in the West.
“There is a frivolity and lack of moral seriousness afflicting the West, but this too is not unprecedented or wholly bad. The Nazis, the communists, and radical Islamists were or are terribly serious,” Koch says.
“Modern Western liberal society is probably the most humane and decent ever seen on the face of the earth. I would like to see more moral seriousness, but of the right kind. Establishing this is like walking through a minefield,” Koch adds.
“Back to basics” in optimism requires a return to the American “can-do” spirit and the western values of the enlightenment.
Simply put, the easiest way to return optimism to America and the West is to take a blow torch to the regulatory state and dismantle the vast majority of paralyzing regulations that afflict businesses and individuals.
Throughout our history, we Americans have been renowned for our ability for getting things done. But when government tells us how we can and cannot live, that optimism turns to pessimism and fatalism, when every positive action is held back by paralyzing regulations.
Coincident with the rise of big government has been the growing cult of “victimhood,” the antithesis of optimism.
Similarly, “back to basics” in economic growth requires the application of an even bigger blow torch to the regulatory state.
“The strange thing is that the underlying reality of the world and especially the West is better than ever. Most people in the world now live in some kind of market system, that is working slowly but remorselessly to eliminate the bulk of poverty and deprivation,” Koch notes.
“Things are getting better, but it doesn’t feel that way,” Koch adds.
A more limited government with dramatically diminished regulatory powers would unleash the entrepreneurial explosion, which in turn will turn the sluggish 2 percent economic growth experienced under the Obama administration into real economic growth that reinvigorates the diminishing middle class, that broad portion of the population that currently knows why “things getting better” don’t feel that way.
“Back to basics” in individualism requires an end to penalizing students and workers who actually exhibit individual thinking. Our schools, both at the elementary, high school, and collegiate level, need to return to the values of the enlightenment, where free and open inquiry are encouraged and allowed. They must cease acting as the propaganda enforcement arms of the social welfare state.
“Back to basics” in science is perhaps the trickiest of all, Science and technology are advancing at a breathtaking pace and such success does not immediately suggest a need for change.
As Richard Koch accurately notes, “the world’s top universities, science, and technology have never been more vibrant or productive. Business is more creative than ever, producing miracles from the internet to the iPod and smartphone.”
While this is true, it is also the case that what Churchill observed in 1899 about the role of science in Western society is no longer true.
“Were it not that Christianity is sheltered in the strong arms of science—the science against which it had vainly struggled—the civilisation of modern Europe might fall [to radical Islam], as fell the civilisation of ancient Rome,” Churchill wrote in his second book, The River War.
Capital, technological skill, and effective organizations will continue to combine in such a way as to drive the frontiers of applied science further and faster than we can currently imagine.
Yet many of those who control those forces currently have little loyalty to constitutional liberty, and are guided more by their personal desires to shape the world to their own peculiar political and social justice philosophies through the exercise of their own wealth and power.
It is unclear whether Western Civilization in 2016 and beyond will be “sheltered in the strong arms of science.”
A movement to go “back to basics” in these six principal ideas that brought the West to dominance, while ambitious, is completely consistent with the grassroots energy that brought the Tea Party movement to prominence in 2009.
It has the added advantage that it is not dependent upon a collectivist effort, but rather on millions of individual efforts.
If you want to know why the West is losing its self-confidence, look in the mirror. If you’re not working ceaselessly to return yourself, your family and your immediate sphere of influence back to the basics of these six principal ideas that brought the West to the top, you’re responsible, in your own small way, for its continued decline.
If leaders are weak and feckless, replace them. If institutions are failing, reform and reinvigorate them.
Don’t rail at the moon. Lasso it.