Friday, January 31, 2020

What is to be Done?

Reno concludes his book with a series of questions and concerns, followed by his prescription for a cure.  I find much of this as frustrating as his diagnosis.  Frustrating because I appreciate much of it while disagreeing with much of it.

He observes in modern society: Marriage is collapsing, and transgender bathrooms are the answer; drug overdose on the rise, with calls for further legalization; suicide rates increasing, followed by calls for doctor-assisted suicide; poor neighborhoods with no services, and the churches who can help them being sued to compel adherence to the sexual revolution.

I suggest respect of private property, and leaving ethical violations (call these non-violent crimes) and punishments outside of the authority of state violence (with churches taking their proper role).  These two actions will go a long way toward resolving all of these concerns.  At least that’s what I think.  We will come to Reno’s views later.

He asks a series of questions:

1.       Can we make the global economy work for middling folks in the West?
2.       Are we able to restore a shared moral community that protects the undisciplined among us from self-destructive vices?
3.       How should we respond to mass migration?
4.       Should there be limits to globalization, and if so, set by whom and to what end?
5.       And then there is the fundamental question: What is the role of the nation in the twenty-first century?

To which I would answer, in order:

1.       End central banking.  This is the foundation of the economic weapon used against the middle class.
2.       End the militarism and wars, including domestic wars like the war on drugs.  There cannot be a moral society when it is a society built on endless militarism, when it is a society that does not care about the death and destruction caused by its government, when a society criminalizes behaviors that are best dealt with via counseling and shelter.
3.       Respect private property.  There will be no perfect solution to the question of immigration; property owners can best regulate this issue.
4.       Eliminate the laws and regulations that make labor unproductive and uncompetitive and that subsidize capital.  Labor in the West is burdened to such an extent that looking overseas for productive capacity is the rational decision; capital is subsidized resulting in an excess of investment in labor-saving tools.
5.       And to his fundamental question, first define what you mean by nation. 

Reno will answer none of these in the same way that I do, and he cannot because he dismisses Hayek out of hand (I must mention that Hayek isn’t the best example for my purposes, but it is who Reno chose); I could say that Reno throws the baby out with the bathwater.  But more on this shortly.

On the subject of nation, Reno asks:

Who are we? What are the loves we share? What communal loyalties properly demand sacrifice? Who among us belongs to the “we”?

All very important questions, certainly if we are to come through these times somewhat peacefully.  Is it a “we” of 300 million people, or is it something else?  Reno lays some groundwork for his further examination on these questions.  He gives a very nice examination in recognizing our specific patrimony within the context of our common humanity:

My parents, grandparents, and ancestors before them are in a real sense far more necessary to me than my generic humanity, so much so that I’m far more likely to sacrifice my life for my blood relations than for someone outside the family circle, however equal he may be in the eyes of God.

My thought while reading this examination: by “we,” he certainly cannot mean the United States or something like the European Union.  We will see if I am right.

He recognizes that the “we” doesn’t just happen; we must take deliberate steps to form families and broader communities.  I keep in mind his recognition that blood relations (including through marriage, etc.) are far more conducive to such a “we” than any conceptual construct or proposition.  Reno offers:

In his massive account of world history, The City of God, Augustine defines the “we” as “an assembled multitude of rational creatures bound together by a common agreement as to the objects of their love.”

Which now brings him to his way forward.  You have seen his questions and concerns; you have seen my responses to some of these.  What does Reno have to say?

Reno understands the reasons for the populist responses in the West – issues of immigration, borders, and national sovereignty.  He suggests that the leadership class has refused to renew the “we.”  What will this “we” rally around?

False loves can be remedied only by true ones. A humane future in the West will require nurturing noble loves.

I agree with this, also that it is necessary if we want to move toward liberty.  But much still depends on the “we.” 

A politically universalized “we” is seen as a blessing:

By drawing the many into the affairs of state, however remotely, democracy encourages them to transcend their me-centered existence. The strong god of the nation draws us out of our “little worlds.”

This will only matter if the “we” feel that what they say / do / vote has influence.  So, the question is: how big is the "we"?  “However remotely” just won’t cut it.  This is where Reno jumps the shark:

Anyone who denies that a nation of more than 300 million people can practice democratic self-governance in any meaningful sense underestimates the power of the “we.”

This is very difficult for me to grasp, especially when the “we” as further defined by Reno is so totally rejected by perhaps half of the 300 million.  Half are deplorable, the other half criminal.  Reno himself will cast doubt on his assertion later. 

I find myself increasingly impatient with those who despise patriotic ceremonies and traditions.

But what if they are protesting what the nation has become – just as you are?  Sure, they might be protesting different things than you are, but they are protesting.  So…are they part of the “we” or not?

Their proudest achievement is the freedom of their country; their most precious possession is their citizenship; their most important contribution to self-government is their loyalty.

This is either a tremendously aspirational statement or it is describing today a “we” of which I want no part.  I do not see freedom in this country; my citizenship causes me concerns when traveling to many parts of the world – all because of actions of the US government; my self-government is grounded in a loyalty elsewhere (as is, I suspect, the self-professed Catholic Reno’s).

I enter into the “we” by my free decision to secure my person (Hobbes) and to secure my freedom of thought and action and my property (Locke).

I enter a “we” if that “we” is worth entering.  Earlier Reno recognized the value of paternity as opposed to a general sense of common humanity.  For me, what is the difference of 300 million or 7 billion?  I cannot comprehend either when thinking of “we.”  But this causes Reno non concern.

These liberal theories suggest a useful test of the strong gods of public life: Are they humanizing or dehumanizing? Do they lay waste or bring flourishing?

Define humanizing and flourishing?  At least half of the “we” will disagree with Reno’s definition.  The other half will disagree with the first half.  Reno offers some sense of this:

To combat this idolatry [of the nation as our savior], we need to nurture two primeval sources of solidarity that limit the claims of the civic “we”: the domestic society of marriage and the supernatural community of the church, synagogue, and other communities of transcendence.

I am with Reno on this, but, like I said, at least half will disagree.  Yet, this is the task at hand; it just depends on who is included in the “we.”  This nation of 300 million is so perfectly divided about such issues.

Our task, therefore, is to restore public life in the West by developing a language of love and a vision of the “we” that befits our dignity and appeals to our reason as well as to our hearts. We must attend to the strong gods who come from above and animate the best of our traditions. Only that kind of leadership will forestall the return of the dark gods who rise up from below.

Who, or what, has responsibility for this?  It can only be the churches.  It won’t be politicians, it won’t be business leaders, it won’t be celebrities. 

The extent to which churches are effective at this will be the extent to which the dark gods can be kept below.  Unfortunately, half of the “we” hates the church and the other half makes a mockery of the church / Christianity (well, not exactly, but you get my point).

Reno rightly criticizes the subjectivism and universalism of a Karl Popper.  He wrongly applies the same thinking in the economic and political realm, using Hayek as the punching bag.

Reno says nothing of central banking, militarism, the beneficial role of private property in resolving our conflicts (he might have said a little about this, but not much), the role of laws and regulations that disadvantage labor and favor capital investment.

In other words, by discounting these libertarian political and free-market economic views (of which Hayek offers a good, but not great, example), he discounts solutions to many of the problems that he rightly sees.

Of course, I agree that the fundamental change must be more foundational: a culture that values honesty and integrity, a culture grounded in Christian ethics.  But this belongs to the church and should have nothing to do with state action if we are to be humane toward our fellow man, if we are to live in a society that allows for human flourishing, if we are to be a society consisting of virtuous and free citizens.


I do not discount community, nor do I discount that it is necessary for liberty.  It really comes back to the “we.”  In the end, Reno offers a throw-away sentence, an issue worthy of much more discussion than this single line and a path through which much can be resolved:

The “we” has many historical strands and local instantiations. The “we” in Mobile, Alabama, is not the same as the “we” in Seattle, Washington—though both are American.

What does “American” mean if Mobile is not the same as Seattle?  As we can see every day, the term “American” has become relevant only when it comes to state-worship, primarily the military.  There is no “we” expression of this term to be found manifest elsewhere.

In this one sentence, Reno sheds light on the most peaceful and humane way forward.  Political decentralization, coupled with a grounding in traditional Western culture (for those who choose it), offers the best possibility for a group to achieve and maintain a “we” that each individual can take pride in.

1 comment:

  1. Very good critique.

    Based on your comment below. I would be satisfied with end central banking, end militarism and empower property owners. That itself does much to reduce laws that disadvantage labor and favor capital investment.

    Of course we shouldn't forget that capital investment itself is why labor rates can increase. More than anything industrial production and open competition between property owners raises the level of our ("we") living conditions.

    "Reno says nothing of central banking, militarism, the beneficial role of private property in resolving our conflicts (he might have said a little about this, but not much), the role of laws and regulations that disadvantage labor and favor capital investment."