Ross Douthat’s Chutes and Ladders

Kudos to Richard for nailing the hack agenda proposed by Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam in Grand New Party, and saving me $23.95 on something I would have hurled across the room. The authors’ ideas for reviving a “pro-family” social policy and buying the votes of the middle and working class with their own tax money sound at once unprincipled and counter-productive—the ripe fruit of stupid Machiavellianism. 

But is there any other kind? Even the most high-octane Machiavellian begins to dumb himself down the moment he adopts this macho, immoralist pose. And the longer he keeps it up, the more IQ points dribble down his leg. By willfully ignoring both the depths and the heights of man’s existence, by focusing “realistically” on the “how” of politics, and squinting his eyes shut tight against the “why,” he inhabits his very own fantasyland, not the real but the Realpolitik world. Think of James Baker or Henry Kissinger trying to reason with (or outwit) Osama bin Laden. Or Gandhi. Or Joan of Arc. 

Most of the people who change the world dramatically for better or worse—from Francis of Assisi to V.I. Lenin—are in no sense “rational actors,” but men in the grip of visions we can only call religious (even if the religion in question is literally diabolical). And the most critical choices that each of us make in our lives boil down not to fiscal fiddling but hope so profound we can’t let go of it, or despair so deep-seated we can’t even admit it. 

While most of us, on most occasions, will act according to our perceived self-interest, narrowly or widely conceived, such a calculus doesn’t explain why we make the most wrenching, important decisions of our lives—like joining the army, picking a spouse, having a second child (or a fifth, or none), cheating on a wife or staying faithful, aborting a child or not. Such decisions have economic and social components, sure. Steven Sailer does the best job of analyzing them, and more power to him. The fact that in New York City it’s an axiom among white people, “Go to public school—get stabbed” probably does affect their birthrate… and drive a significant number of them out to hellholes like Mineola.

But it can’t explain why so many of us aren’t getting married until our forties. High taxes may make staying married harder… but then again, prosperity can fund gambling habits and discreet adultery. You really can’t manage such things by turning dials on consoles on Capitol Hill. The grim and self-defeating selfishness that makes modern family life seem so pointless to so many is less the fruit of policy than the fact that so many of us read Betty Friedan and Hugh Hefner back in college. Apart from banning such books, the state has little leverage. It really should just get out of the way. 

Because what the modern State does best is to turn adults into adolescents. It overindulges some vices—such as envy—and punishes others with fanatical savagery. (Can anyone explain to me why late-term abortionists in New York State are respected medical professionals, while losers caught with the wrong-sized bag of pot will be sentenced to decades of prison rape? Help me out here, people.)

In a West that is doggedly secular, the public sector will infallibly stumble toward value-neutral policies based either on individual rights or tribal groupthink (depending on which party and which race holds the whip). What it won’t do, what even the likes of Douthat can’t pretend it will even attempt, is to undertake a policy of serious, Christian paternalism. Such a spirit used to make the welfare state less toxic, as Allan Carlson documents in his brilliant book The American Way. But in its pages I detected a whiff of nostalgia, a sense that Carlson hoped we could someday bring back those case officers who’d deliver a welfare check in person—and rifle through the recipient’s cabinets in search of whiskey bottles. I doubt most church agencies would have the stones to try such a thing nowadays. We can barely hold back homosexual marriage in 48 states or keep women out of combat. Who out there thinks we can direct subsidies for stay-at-home parents where they belong—to married women? Show of hands?

Unless conservatives are ready and willing to advocate full-on, Francoist patriarchy (Not that there’s anything wrong with that…), they really should give up on the notion that tinkering with tax policies will save the family, or the working class, or anything else caring about. Apart from closing the borders so we aren’t colonized by foreigners, there’s not much the State can do for us except cut our taxes and stay out of our way.

The Machiavellian policy fetish has multiple explanations. First and foremost, it helps you win book contracts, and gets you pedicures from David Brooks. On a deeper level, however, it flows from a freely chosen tunnel vision about what it means to be human. It’s an example of what Eric Voegelin meant when he described ideology (in Anamnesis) as a “secondary reality,” based on a truncated caricature of human existence. Utopians and distopians alike see man as either an incipient god or a horny, hungry primate—so they set up society’s chutes and ladders accordingly. What these thinkers leave out, as Walker Percy liked to remind us, is what it actually feels like to be a man or woman. They exempt themselves from their theories. Here’s the most obvious, clever college sophomore response to such a person: If you’re stuck arguing with a scientific determinist, ask him: “How can you possibly know if your theory reflects reality? Maybe it’s just what your neurons want you to think!”

It is the private, secret, half-rationalized but fundamentally religious decisions which (for instance) vanishing Europeans are making en masse, and making wrongly. (Some people you can’t even pay to have children.) If our mother Continent is doomed to foreign conquest, if our race does vanish from the earth, it is choices like these that will be finally to blame. By focusing on policy, we are looking for our patrimony under a street lamp—since that’s where the light is.



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