On Popular Reason and Self-Rule

Editors’ Note:

“The following is an excerpt from Michael Walsh’s forthcoming book, Against the Great Reset: Eighteen Theses Contra the New World Order, which will be published by Bombardier Books and be available October 18, 2022. Walsh has gathered a series of essays from among eighteen of the most eminent thinkers, writers, and journalists—including the American Mind’s own James Poulos, as well as Claremont Senior Fellows Michael Anton and the late Angelo Codevilla—to provide the first major salvo in the intellectual resistance to the sweeping restructuring of the western world by globalist elites.”

I think I know man, but as for men, I know them not.
—Jean-Jacques Rousseau

In a memorable passage at the beginning of The Critique of Pure Reason, Immanuel Kant evokes a soaring dove that, “cleaving the air in her free flight,” feels the resistance of the wind and imagines that its flight “would be easier still in empty space.” A fond thought, of course, since absent that aeolian pressure, the dove would simply plummet to the ground.

How regularly the friction of reality works that way: making possible our endeavors even as it circumscribes and limits their extent. And how often, like Kant’s dove, we are tempted to imagine that our freedoms would be grander and more extravagant absent the countervailing forces that make them possible.

Such fantasies are as perennial as they are vain. They insinuate themselves everywhere in the economy of human desire, not least in our political arrangements. Noticing the imperfection of our societies, we may be tempted into thinking that the problem is with the limiting structures we have inherited. If only we could dispense with them, we might imagine, beating our wings, how much better things might be.

What a cunning, devilish word: “might.” For here as elsewhere, possibility is cheap. Scrap our current political accommodations and things might be better. Then again, they might be a whole lot worse. Vide the host of tyrannies inspired by that disciple of airy possibility, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. “Man was born free,” he declaimed, “but is everywhere in chains”: two startling untruths in a single famous utterance. Rousseau was keen on “forcing men to be free,” but we had to wait until his followers Robespierre and Saint-Just to discover that freedom in this sense is often indistinguishable from what Robespierre chillingly called “virtue and its emanation, terror.” Something similar can be said about Karl Marx, that other acolyte of possibility. How much misery have his theories underwritten, promising paradise but delivering tyranny, oppression, poverty, and death?

It wasn’t so long ago that I had hopes that the Marxist-socialist rot—outside the insulated purlieus of humanities departments at Western universities, anyway—was on the fast track to oblivion. Has any “philosophy” ever been so graphically refuted by events (or the number of corpses it created)?

Maybe not, but refutation, like reason, plays a much more modest role in human affairs than we might imagine. In fact, the socialist-inspired utopian chorus is alive and well, playing to full houses at an antidemocratic redoubt near you. Consider the apparently unkillable dream of “world government.” It is as fatuous now as it was when H. G. Wells infused it with literary drama toward the beginning of the twentieth century.

All human children need to learn to walk by themselves; so, it seems, every generation needs to wean itself from the blandishments of various utopian schemes. In 2005, the political philosopher Jeremy Rabkin published a fine book called Law Without Nations? Why Constitutional Government Requires Sovereign States. Rabkin ably fleshes out the promise of his subtitle, but it would be folly to think this labor will not have to be repeated. The temptation to exchange hard-won democratic freedom for the swaddling comfort of one or another central planning body is as inextinguishable as it is dangerous. As Ronald Reagan memorably put it,

Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.

The late English philosopher Roger Scruton made the connection between this insight and the bulwark provided by the nation-state. “Democracies,” he wrote, “owe their existence to national loyalties—the loyalties that are supposedly shared by government and opposition.” Confusing national loyalty with nationalism, many utopians argue that the former is a threat to peace. After all, wasn’t it national loyalty that sparked two world wars? No, it was that perverted offspring, nationalism, which at great cost was defeated only by the successful mobilization of national loyalty. Scruton quotes G. K. Chesterton on this point: to condemn patriotism because people go to war for patriotic reasons is like condemning love because some loves lead to murder.

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