From time to time (or, I’ll be honest, quite frequently) I like to return to my roots and read material coming out of conservative circles. There is some comfort in familiarity, though certain core ideas (Judeo-Christianity, Free Market Capitalism etc.) prevent me from agreeing no matter how comforting it is. It is still interesting to follow their thought processes. Every once in a while you will find ideas that should lead them this way, but their ideologies inevitably turn them off course and does not ease their discontent.
One of the venues I read from is the National Review, and an article by Kevin Williamson caught my eye just recently. The article concerns discontent in modern life. The conclusions the author draws about the source of much of modern discontent are quite apt, but the solutions posed are weak.
Discontent Is Not Necessarily Material
The article begins with the trite, but true, observation that despite all of the West’s affluence, its inhabitants remain dissatisfied. Far-left and far-right movements have begun to pop up seeking, not simply to make their constituents’ lives easier, but to change the system entirely. As Mr. Williamson describes it, “Once, the question the ambitious and dissatisfied asked themselves was: “How do I climb that ladder?” Current tastes run more toward smashing the ladder and the hierarchies for which it stands in the name of . . . whatever.”
For myself, I would wonder why smashing the ladder would be more appealing than ascending it? Ascending it is certainly an easier task for most people. At least, if your goal is a comfortable middle-class life, a revolution is probably the least efficient way to achieve that. Well, Mr. Williamson appears to believe that it is not about material well-being at all. He notes that our well-being is greater than it has ever been and that we would all have a very hard time convincing people from a hundred years ago that anything was all that bad. We’d probably choke on our words when we saw how they were living. Our abundance would be an embarrassment.
Nothing unusual is said thus far. The stereotypical conservative conclusion would be to say that people these days are just spoiled and ought to learn to be grateful for what they have. That is not where Mr. Williamson goes, however, so I don’t have to get on him just yet.
Discontent Derives From The Will To Power
Where he goes, is where I want him to go. He comes to this conclusion:
“We do not have a problem of privation in the United States. Not really. What we have is something related to what Arthur Brooks (“the most interesting man in Washington,” Tim Alberta calls him) describes as the need for earned success. We are not happy with mere material abundance.”
And there is the sentence. Actually it is just a short phrase. “ . . . the need for earned success.”
What is this ‘need’? What has Mr. Williamson just touched on? This is the Will to Power. Pay close attention to politics and you will see this everywhere. Why do Social Justice groups choose the word “justice”? Why do Black Radicals cringe at the word ‘charity’? Why do privileged people dislike being called “privileged”? None of these groups want happiness as a “gift”. They do not want “help” and they do not want “privilege”. At least, they don’t want to believe that they are receiving these things. All material success must be understood to be earned. This allows them to be active, while such words as “charity” and “privilege” make them entirely passive. The Will to Power demands that people at least be able to think of themselves as agents. This is why they need “earned success”.
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Libertarianism Cannot Address This Discontent
So, how can this discontent be resolved? The unfortunate truth is that Mr. Williamson is a Libertarian. He does not have the appropriate means of addressing it. He goes on to elaborate on the problem. Some of the elaboration is good. His solutions, however, are terribly weak.
One of Mr. Williamson’s answers relates to the nuclear family. “If he [an estranged father] is not fixed in this world by being a father and a husband, and if he has only ordinary, unexceptional employment, what, exactly, is he?” Yes, who is he? This is painful to consider. A man with nothing special to say about his job (probably most men) and no family to give himself to is generally at a loss to describe his worth. So, what to do? Ban divorce? Ignoring all the problems with the nuclear family, there are not very many good and actionable steps for society to ensure its cohesiveness. The negative liberty philosophy, unfortunately, forces this position. If one is not well bonded with the community, the family is the next natural place to go.
Another solution Mr. Williamson hints at is religion. “Our churches are full of people who would love to talk to you about healing, but many have lost interest in that sort of thing, too.” Yeah, and good luck rekindling that interest. The Church used to be one of the closest things to community the West had, but the data keeps flooding in on the absurdity of Abrahamism. Also, if we are talking about “earned success”, how exactly would Abrahamism provide that? Its philosophy appears to be that nothing is truly earned. Abrahamism carries with it a schizophrenic mindset in which its adherents attempt to balance their need for significance with demands for “humility”.
The family and Abrahamism are weak answers to the problem, but they are the best that Mr. Williamson can give. Nowhere does his philosophy allow for the community to actively find a place for each of its members, so he must turn to old and dying institutions to fill that void.
Meritocracy Is The Way To Handle Discontent
So, it is still the Will to Power that is working on us. We are seeking “earned success”. We desire achievement. This is not going to be easy, of course for anyone who is under-privileged. If, regardless of your merits, roadblocks are put in your way, there will not be much satisfaction in your work. Trying to push over a brick wall is not a very satisfying endeavor no matter how impressive your attempts are. Those who are privileged on the other hand, are going to have their own issues. If you are born on third and you think you hit a triple, the reason you believe you hit that triple is because you have to believe that. Being on third is not really what you were after. You’d be much happier being on first base and knowing you hit a single. What you were after was the sense of accomplishment.
If equality of opportunity is genuine, however, all success can be described as “earned success”. This is what we should all want. What we should also want is for our success to have meaning. Given that institutions such as the family and the Church are dying, we cannot turn to them for meaning. We require scope to devote our efforts towards perfecting our communities. What we require are equal opportunities to prove our worth to the communities we live in.
The above demands are only achievable in a system of positive liberty. We need a community that not only aggressively levels the playing field, but also actively awards actions that are meritorious (regardless of what the market says). We need societies that define the roles in which their inhabitants occupy. Meritocracy and positive liberty are all about this. Negative liberty balks at this.
Kevin Williamson will not be able to resolve the problem he posed within his own framework. Afraid of granting the state power, he turns to two dying institutions (the family and the Church) with the weakly expressed hope that maybe they can provide the answers. They can’t. If they ever could, they can’t anymore. Speaking of the discontented, Kevin’s final words are “And what will we offer them?” Well, nothing. You have nothing.
Jason Calhoughney writing for the Apollo Institute of Reason AIR Review©