This year is looking more and more like one of those “years of decision” that have marked profound crises and changes in American history. I’m speaking not just about the presidential election, or whether or not Barack Obama gets a second term. Obama is merely a symptom of our educational, social, economic, and political dysfunctions that in turn reflect the failing core ideology of modernity expressed by progressive politics. The “decision” that has to be made this year is whether we finally abandon that nexus of ideas that has led us to our current economic troubles.
That ideology is predicated on the belief that advances in scientific knowledge have revealed the truth of human nature and society, and that such knowledge can lead to technical interventions that in turn will substantially improve human life. “The behaviour of human beings,” Isaiah Berlin describes this belief, “both individually and in the aggregate, is in principle intelligible, if the facts are observed patiently and intelligently, hypotheses formulated and verified, laws established” as was occurring in the sciences such as physics, astronomy, or chemistry. With time the “human sciences” such as psychology and sociology, along with new advances in biology and physiology, would achieve knowledge of human beings and their actions equally reliable and certain. “Once appropriate social laws were discovered,” Berlin continues, “rational organization would take the place of blind improvisation, and men’s wishes, within the limits of the uniformities of nature, could in principle all be made to come true.” Contrary to the past, when irrational superstitions, religious beliefs, and traditions limited man’s progress and left him mired in fear, poverty, and violence, the new techno-elites armed with this scientific knowledge and the techniques it has created will shape and transform human nature and thus help the human race progress beyond these miseries.
That, in a nutshell, describes the major political and social movements of the last two centuries, including some of the bloodiest in history. This idea is also the foundation of progressivism, which strives to give power to self-proclaimed “experts” in order to create policies for the centralized, increasingly powerful and intrusive state. Armed with that coercive power and new technologies, the state can impose laws and policies that supposedly will achieve “social justice,” a utopia of economic equality, perpetual happiness, and material comfort. The price? The erosion of political freedom, personal autonomy, and personal responsibility, all sold for a mess of nanny-state pottage.
The current economic crises here and abroad are manifestations of the shipwreck of progressive ideas on the rocks of human nature, the unpredictability of the future, and the complexity of social reality. In Europe, the transnational, top-down-managed E.U. was created to knit traditional enemies together by trade and economic integration, which required a single currency and anti-democratic regulations imposed from above by Brussels and Strasbourg. Ignored were the very real national, ethnic, and cultural differences that give people their identities and partly accounted for their historical conflicts with one another. It is these same differences that are now dividing the monetary union, differences expressed politically by the voters whom the Eurocrats have brushed aside for decades. There are no “Europeans” sharing a common identity after all, but only Germans, Greeks, Italians, Spaniards, Frenchmen, and Englishmen, with conflicting national interests, mores, and ethics.
But the economic crisis was created in part by another, equally dangerous delusion: that each state, abetted by the regulatory coercive powers of the E.U. super-state, would direct and guide its economy in order to finance a network of social welfare entitlements insulating people from the costs, trade-offs, and failures that always have characterized human existence. A revealing letter published in 2003 by two European philosophers, Jacques Derrida and Jürgen Habermas, expressed this vision that underlay the E.U. project. Especially revealing was the philosophers’ emphasis on the need to minimize the “sociopathological consequences of capitalist modernization,” and on a “preference for the protective guarantees of the welfare state and solidaristic solutions” as opposed to “an individualistic performance ethos which accepts crass social inequalities.” The lavish social welfare entitlements designed and controlled by government functionaries and monitored by Eurocrats are the means for achieving these utopian boons.