Civility and the Challenge of Ordered Liberty – Law & Liberty Blog

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Stephen Carter’s Civility is a sophisticated case for renewal of this virtue in American life. Carter is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale Law School, his book, subtitled Manners, Morals, and Etiquette of Democracy, speaks to what he deemed a uniquely uncivil moment in American history—the 1990s. And though it was written twenty years ago this year, Carter’s analysis could just as aptly describe today.

Civility adds a moral dimension to the way we interact with our fellow citizens—our “fellow travelers” as Carter calls them. He makes two distinct but related moral arguments for civility. First, our shared humanity gives us all a duty to respect one another. Second, life of our republic requires us to show regard for one another through our actions, great and small.

Carter’s work, which is more moral philosophy treatise than etiquette manual, is a refreshing departure from the typical manners genre. His wide-ranging musings on the importance of norms in modern American life offer deep reflections on human nature, unjust moments in American history, social science research, and the culture of cynicism in America.

Though some readers might find certain parts moralizing to excess, he makes no apologies for the way that his Christian faith informs his thinking. He ultimately offers a spiritual solution to a temporal problem. Americans suffer from a flagrant lack of respect for our fellow travelers, which he argues does harm to our souls and our republic. His antidote is a return to the religious foundations—the Judeo-Christian tradition—that give us reason to respect one another in the first place.

Civility and its Discontents

Carter wrote his defense for civility in the midst of an anti-civility backlash in the late 1990s, when national concern about the lack of civility was also quite high. In March 1997, this led to the creation of the Bipartisan Congressional Retreat. This was a gathering of political leaders across parties lies in the idyllic pastures of Hershey, Pennsylvania. The retreat’s stated purpose was to “seek a greater degree of civility, mutual respect and, when possible, bipartisanship among Members of the House of Representatives in order to foster an environment in which vigorous debate and mutual respect can co-exist.”

The thinking was that friendship and familiarity among Members of Congress would enable them to work together amidst deep differences of opinion. This rationale is corroborated by social research and lived experience: we are indeed less likely to unfairly malign and assume the worst about persons we know and enjoy being around.

Much in the spirit of Hillary Clinton’s now-infamous comments—“You cannot be civil with a political party that wants to destroy what you stand for, what you care about”—some Members thought the retreat a waste of time: after all, they thought, their political rivals were so detestable that there was no need to be civil with them. It was the “dumbest idea” that Joel Hefley (R-CO) had ever heard. “You can go to Hershey fifty times and it would not make a difference,” claimed David Obey (D-WI). Perhaps not co-incidentally, Obey—who ended up skipping the civility retreat—was involved in a shoving match with Republican Congressman Tom DeLay not too long after the retreat’s end.

Many people agree, denying the premise that we owe respect to others regardless of agreement. Carter addresses these and other objections before making his affirmative case. He notes the assertions of Michael Sandel and Ellen Goodman, who claim an overemphasis on manners is a harmful distraction from social solidarity. And Carter acknowledges Benjamin DeMott’s argument in a 1996 Nation essay entitled “Seduced by Civility” that manners mask the real issues of race and class at hand. Observing that slaveholders invoked “civility” to silence the abolitionists, DeMott claims that “when you’re in an argument with a thug, there are things much more important than civility.” When one’s views are so abhorrent and antithetical to justice, in other words, all bets are off. Maureen Dowd claimed that President Clinton’s call for renewed civility masked deep and important disagreement, and became a “kind of hypocrisy.”

But for Carter, these criticisms get civility wrong, because civility is “a set of sacrifices we make for the sake of our common journey with others, and out of respect for the very idea that there are others … who are every bit our equals before God.”

Contrary to being an act of hypocrisy, civility means acting with integrity. He draws a thread between respecting fundamental human rights and respecting others with our manners, giving the example of the process of “purification” that Martin Luther King Jr. and his followers used in their non-violent civil protests. Adherents to non-violence knew that rebelling against a violent and oppressive status quo would subject them to violence. But it was not just for tactical reasons that they took the moral high ground by conducting themselves more justly than their oppressors. And their aim in doing so was to prick the conscience of their nation, sensitizing their fellow citizens to the deep injustices of institutional racism.

Carter quotes historian Albert J. Raboteau on Dr. King’s moral reasoning,

Nonviolence is based upon the belief that acceptance of suffering is redemptive, because suffering can transform both the sufferer and the oppressor; it is based on loving others regardless of worth or merit; it is based on the realization that all human beings are interrelated; and it is grounded in the confidence that justice will, in the end, triumph over injustice.

The goal of King’s non-violent protests was not to defeat the opponents to civil rights, but to convert them. King and his supporters succeeded in persuading a nation that black Americans both could and should become full participants in our democracy. The civility of the civil rights protesters was directly informed by their expressly Christian charge to love one’s enemies, and do good to those who seek to do harm. Indeed, the stated purpose of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, co-founded by Dr. King after the Montgomery Bus Boycott, was to “save the soul of the nation.”

This is why Carter claims that “only a resurgence in all that is best about religious faith will rescue civility in America, for there is no more profound vision of equality than equality before God,” and why “civility that rests on the shifting sands of secular morality might topple with the next stiff political wind.”

Carter is right that Christian charity, showing love and forgiveness to those who seek your harm, is a demanding standard of morality—and is one that secular readers may choose not to accept.

But civility need not have an explicitly Christian cast. Even secular readers may be comfortable with the idea that we all share a common human dignity—which in turn creates for us a shared moral obligation to one another. This is, after all the central tenet of the secular Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was originally adopted across national, religious, and philosophical lines and continues to enjoy support from people of all national and political affiliations.

But what does make us different, and what does that mean for the respect we owe to others?

Civility as Conduct That Marks, Recognizes, and Respects our Humanity

In the first place, Carter asserts that humans are uniquely worth of respect, in a way that plants and animals are not, because of our free will and morality. We are all equal before God, Carter is fond of saying, created in his image. We therefore share a nature with one another. This nature constitutes morality—the ability to discern right from wrong—and volition—the ability to choose right from wrong.  We are also fallible. We err, but we are self-aware enough to act differently in the future.  “Lower animals,” Carter writes, are programmed to act on instinct alone and do not have these characteristics.

Self-control is the common thread that runs through these facets of our humanity. We possess the ability to rise above instinct, discipline our desires, and choose how to act. This is Carter’s central take-away from Erasmus of Rotterdam’s A Handbook on Good Manners for Children, which he regularly cites throughout Civility. While it is mostly a list of dos and don’ts—“Some people, no sooner than they’ve sat down, immediately stick their hands into the dishes of food,” admonishes Erasmus, “This is the manner of wolves”—the underlying assumption is that we have the ability to choose to sacrifice our immediate desires and impulses for the sake of others and for community.

Carter argues that reflecting on the majesty of our humanity should have the effect of instilling “awe” in us every time meet a stranger: for Carter, we ought to see God in them. From this shared, partially divine nature, Carter derives the moral obligations we have to one another. These attributes of our humanity set us apart and make us uniquely deserving of respect.

For Carter, seeing one another as equals before God ought to inform the manner in which we treat one another with equal respect. America’s trend toward the casual is informed by our egalitarian impulse, Carter believes our equality should just as easily inform our formality. Carter notes how he is easily put off by the familiarity of strangers who address him by his first name. For him, it is presumptuous to presume the intimacy of being on a first name basis. He acknowledges the reason behind this particular sensitivity: “Black Americans fought hard and long for the right to be called “Mr.” and “Mrs.” rather than by their first names—only to discover, just as the battle is won, that an increasing number of white Americans think these politely formal sobriquets should be discarded.” Female professors and doctors have also made this point: in one study, research showed that women were less likely than men to be introduced by professional title when being introduced by men.

The point is well-taken: while it scalds the American egalitarian psyche to hear others insist on being addressed by honorifics like “Mr.” or “Dr.”, formality does not always mean one is exerting superiority. It can be a way of respecting the equal dignity of all. But apart from the inherent good of respecting others, there is also an instrumental good: civil norms of mutual respect are essential to our democracy.

Civility and Democracy

Carter is adamant about the responsibility that citizens in a free society of limited government must exercise self-restraint regarding how they use their freedom. Democracy rests on a set of democratic norms that are broadly accepted and adhered to. These norms are sub-legal, meaning they cannot and ought not be enforced by law, but have an important role of modulating our interactions and buttressing our institutions. Norms cannot be enforced by law and punishment—if they were, Carter notes, we would live in what many would consider a police state—but if too many people decide to flout societal expectations of behavior, the social cohesion falters and our institutions weaken.

Carter does not draw from the history of post-Soviet Europe, but his argument for civility as necessary to democracy is reinforced by Ernest Gellner’s 1996 book Conditions of Liberty: Civil Society and its Rivals, in which Gellner examines the influx of Western academic advisors into the newly formed democratic governments in previously Soviet countries. Many of these countries lacked civic organizations and suffered from low social cohesion. Gellner explains that this deficit was crucial, even as it was overlooked by the free-market economists counseling the new governments: civil society is “that set of diverse non-governmental institutions which is strong enough to counterbalance the state and, while not preventing the state from fulfilling its role of keeper of the peace and arbitrator among major interests, can nevertheless prevent it from dominating and atomising the rest of society.” Airlifting capitalist and democratic institutions into post-Soviet countries was insufficient; the cultural attitudes of citizens, toward government and one another, was also as essential. Relationships and respect for fellow citizens are a pre-political good, necessary to sustain strong democratic institutions and decent politics. Civility, or norms that promote trust, cohesion, and mutual respect, are the fundamental building block of a truly civilized society.

In some ways, in the two decades since Carter wrote this book, the world has become less hospitable to civility. This makes reviving his ideas all the more crucial. Our own moment may feel more uncivil than past eras, and we realize it’s not always to overcome our hurts and prejudices. But Carter rightly argues that it’s worth it.

The alternative is bleak. There is an abundant literature describing the collapse of civility and the consequences that collapse has for American communities, with Ben Sasse’s Them, Charles Murray’s Coming Apart, and Tim Carney’s forthcoming Alienated America just some of the most prominent.

But recent years have also seen a proliferation of groups trying to remedy this collapse and divide: Slate Star Codex Rationalist meet-ups that seek truth in group settings, Benjamin Franklin Circles that pursue virtue in group settings, the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation that gathers problem-solvers, as well as many other nationalstate-wide, and local initiatives. These trends are encouraging, as they demonstrate the widespread dissatisfaction of the direction of our nation, and the willingness of citizens to do something about it.

Civility is a profoundly earnest account of one man’s desire to find order and truth in a deeply divided time, and it can also guide us in our own. The result is a rewarding journey into the mind of a great modern thinker. Carter encourages his readers to see civility as more than mere etiquette, to instead see it as a moral obligation to others in light of our common humanity.

Carter claimed that the 1990s was a uniquely uncivil time for our nation. We hear people today claim the same of the tenor of our public discourse today. Both are incorrect. Since the first humans decided to live in community, there has been a need to have norms guide our interactions, lest our self-interestedness win out over our desire for relationship. The selfish and other-directed facets of our nature have always been, and always will be, in tension. In calling us to be civil, then, Carter calls us to an impossible standard. But it is an important—and explicitly Christian—one.

In a world that is increasingly Manichean, one where people view the world as a battle between good and evil, it is both more difficult but more necessary to abide by the high standard of civility to which Carter calls us: to be kind when we don’t have to, to trust when we don’t have to reason to, to love those who hurt us.

Alexandra Hudson

Alexandra Hudson is a writer based in Indianapolis, IN. Most recently, she was an appointee at the U.S. Department of Education. She is currently working on a book on civility. Follow her on Twitter @LexiOHudson

The Gold Standard and Civil Society

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“You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”

William Jennings Bryan’s famous condemnation of the gold standard—his preference instead having been “bimetallism,” a monetary system wherein both gold and silver were legal tender—made his speech at the 1896 Democratic National Convention among the most famous in the history of American political oratory.

Jennings’ opposition to the gold standard has been echoed by many experts since. The gold standard’s supporters claim, on the other hand, there history has yet to witness a better stabilizer of exchange rates, prices, and inflation. There is as well something ineluctably appealing about a currency that either consists or is readily convertible into a universally-prized commodity, as opposed to one whose most tangible representative consists of a mere piece of paper to which bureaucrats have assigned some nominal value. A return to the gold standard would also end the Federal Reserve’s discretionary control over the worth of our money. Indeed, it would do away altogether with the need for monetary policy, a development that modern advocates of a gold-standard resurrection see as a feature, rather than as a bug.

Whether a return to gold would be a blessing or a curse, there simply is zero political will in any developed nation to attempt such a return. Instead, the near-universal consensus among experts, pundits, and politicians is that such a return is simply not desirable. But it hardly follows that the gold standard of old has nothing to offer us today. At very least, it can remind us of the crucial part trust played in shaping today’s global economy.


James S. Coleman’s Foundations of Social Theory defines “trust” as voluntary acts by which persons places resources at the disposal of another with little in the way of enforceable commitment. This act demonstrates both vulnerability on the part of the “trust-er”, and the confidence they have in the “trusted” to uphold their commitment without being forced to do so.

In a world where knowledge is invariably imperfect, trust—at both the macro- and micro-level—is what holds together both our society and modern economic system. However, even when enforceable contractual agreements are in place, as was the case with the gold standard, a failure to honor agreements meant economic failure, if not complete ruin. A party cannot pursue recourse for a breached contract from a position of financial tatters, which underscores how an element of trust in the good faith of one’s counterpart is essential to entering into such agreements in the first place.

Niko Matouschek of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Business, and an affiliate of The Trust Project, says, “The absence of trust is an impediment to growth in employment, wages, profits and therefore makes us all worse off… trust involves keeping one’s promises even if it is not in one’s immediate economic interest to do so.”

Trust is needed when it is cumbersome to create a formal contract enumerating two people’s mutual obligation to one another. You trust that when you hand over a five-dollar bill to the cashier that he will, in exchange, give you the candy bar that you would like to buy. If the cashier does not give you the candy bar and keeps your five dollars, he may be up five dollars today but will be down much more than that in the long run—because you will tell others that he broke his commitment to you which will cause him to lose business. It is trust—especially in light of an exponentially growing “sharing” economy that includes Uber, Lyft, and Airbnb—that lubricates the wheels of exchange.

Given trust’s integral nature to a market economy, what can we learn from how trust was promoted by the first global financial system?

How the Gold Standard Promoted Trust

The gold standard, which promoted trust between increasingly economically interconnected nations, is inextricably linked to the shift to internationalization of financial markets in the nineteenth century.

There was then, as there is now, both financially mature and financially underdeveloped economies. When the the financially mature economies like France, Germany and England adopted the gold standard, they set the standard for the international market. Banks and private investors from these countries, in the absence of reliable information about political realities, looked to whether financially underdeveloped nations adopted the gold standard to determine how they were going to engage with them.

A peripheral nation’s adoption of the gold standard came with many benefits, including increased access to capital, lower interest rates, and greater access to markets. As Layna Mosley of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill put it, “Adherence to the gold standard suggested reduced currency risk, as well as government tendencies toward fiscal and monetary discipline.”

Adopting the gold standard, then, was less a matter of gold being an objectively superior medium of exchange to all others. It was simply the standard that financially mature countries—particularly Britain—agreed upon, making it a system that the world could rely on.

Benn Steil and Manuel Hinds write in their book Money, Markets and Sovereignty that Britain, in adopting the gold standard, “revealed a commitment to maintain the currency’s value, a commitment that met the expectations of traders, savers, and borrowers around the globe. British trade and finance was build on that confidence.”

For financially underdeveloped countries, adopting the gold standard meant that they could be trusted: they were a part of the team and were willing to play by the rules.

This principle is true today. When countries in the developing world peg their currency to the U.S. dollar, the British Pound, or the Euro, they are wordlessly indicating to investors and foreign government that they are committing to financial responsibility: they will not default on loans or inflate their currency to pay off debt willy-nilly. Mosley continues,

The gold standard may have offered the greatest benefits to those with the weakest credit: it wasn’t the Netherlands or Sweden that needed the gold standard to convince financial markets of their credibility. It was Argentina, Mexico and Greece.

Adopting the gold standard offered a sort of financial equality. It demonstrated that countries with weaker credit could be trusted, and that playing by the rules was rewarded.

Playing by the rules is rewarded the same way in our own society. Abiding by social norms builds trust among members of a community. Flouting social norms, such as someone choosing to cut in line, communicates that one thinks they are above the rules and that they do not think others are worthy of respect. In so doing, they demonstrate that they themselves are not necessarily a reliable member of the community.

Thankfully, instances such as this young girl—who pilfered hundreds of thousands of dollars from friends and banks, and shirked tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of hotels and restaurant bills, to life a profligately extravagant lifestyle—is the minority. But, imagine if it weren’t?

In the absence of the gold standard’s international trust-promoting qualities, it is important to consider alternative paths to trust-building between nations and peoples. Anti-inflationary measures, free trade agreements, mutual respect of intellectual property each can help towards this goal.

In his Two Philosophies of Money, S. Herbert Frankel writes, “Trust is like love. To attempt to obtain it by bribery or purchases is to debase, indeed, to destroy it; it is an age old truth—immortalized by King Lear.”

In our era of instant gratification and “get rich quick” schemes that promise immediate results, it can be frustrating to consider that there exist entities of immense value that cannot be had or purchased instantly. But the most important things in life never are.

Alexandra Hudson

Alexandra Hudson is a writer based in Indianapolis, IN. She has held posts at the Federalist Society, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, and earned an MSc in comparative social policy at the London School of Economics as a Rotary Scholar. Most recently, she was an appointee at the U.S. Department of Education. She enjoys reading about and discussing European history and philosophy. She currently working on a book on civility. Follow her on Twitter @LexiOHudson

Free Markets and Existentialism: A Curious Coterie – Law & Liberty Blog

View of Les Deux Magots cafe in the 6th arrondissement in the Saint-Germain des Pres area of Paris, a favorite spot of Sartre and de Beauvoir. (E.Q. Roy /

William Irwin’s The Free Market Existentialist: Capitalism without Consumerism (2015) is a noble endeavor that attempts to reconcile his love of free enterprise with his flair for the existential.

Existentialism is a philosophy that recognizes the despair and absurdity of human existence and offers a way of coping with it. For existentialists, individuals must choose to be their authentic selves, which they discover and create through concrete decisions and experiences. A free market economy is one that has limited government involvement and promotes competition between privately held businesses.

Irwin correctly draws parallels between existentialism and the ideals of liberty that underpin the free market—an uncommon and intriguing insight. Both concepts emphasize the individual over the collective, the importance of agency in decision making, and the significance of taking personal responsibility for one’s own free choices.

In marrying two notions that people rarely consider together, Irwin offers to existentialists an opportunity to realize that they are more open to free exchange than they might have known, and shows free-marketeers that their views on political economy are compatible with existentialism. Both of those books would have been interesting.

Neither is what Irwin achieved.

Instead, Irwin took the existentialism of Jean Paul Sartre (in his early years) and rather indelicately tried to fit it into his small-government libertarianism. In choosing this method, the project was doomed from the start.

Existentialism: More than Sartre

Irwin’s first challenge is merely defining existentialism, since existentialist thinkers are incredibly diverse. Existentialism has shared attributes but no necessary or sufficient characteristics, and is more of an approach to life than a systematic philosophy. It therefore defies definition and labels. As Irwin put it, “If there were an existentialists club, no one would join.”

While broadly speaking, existentialism describes the impulse for an individual to want their lives to have meaning, by limiting himself to Sartre’s account of existentialism instead of also drawing from other existentialists, Irwin unnecessarily hinders his ability to show that existentialism is compatible with the free market.

Firstly, by focusing on Sartre, Irwin does not do justice to existentialism. Sartre represents a narrow group of existentialists who respond to life’s meaninglessness without a concept of God. There are numerous existentialists — including the very first existentialists — who think that the only way to endure life’s absurdity is with God.

French mathematician and inventor in the 17th century, Blaise Pascal, was a forerunner of the existentialists. For Pascal, the best option to overcome the despair of human existence was encapsulated in what is commonly known as Pascal’s Wager. Pascal said that when it comes to the question of whether or not God exists, people gambled lives in deciding which was true.

Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.

Even though he himself was a brilliant scientist, Pascal was skeptical of the enlightenment project’s elevation of science and reason over faith. In a beautiful aphorism in his Pensées, Pascal writes, “The heart has reasons that reason cannot understand.” He knew that the most important things in life, such as the meaning of human existence or the existence of God, could not be explained by a scientific equation, but must be believed or experienced. For Pascal, the stakes were too high to risk being wrong, and he wagered to believe.

19th century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, the first modern existentialist, also understood that the use of reason and the intellect was of limited use in gaining knowledge of the things that truly mattered. Kierkegaard, like Sartre, knew life was defined by anxiety and despair. But unlike Sartre, Kierkegaard’s remedy was faith in God. Kierkegaard wrote that life is merely a “sickness unto death” and it was only through faith in Jesus Christ, the physician of the soul, that we could attain hope and healing.

God and Human Rights

Relatedly, by limiting himself to an existentialist like Sartre who did not believe in God, Irwin makes it far more difficult for himself to make an existentialist case for natural rights, let alone the property rights that are essential for free markets to thrive. Sartre, following in the footsteps of Friedrich Nietzsche, took seriously that the death of God meant that no objective values existed. By “death of God,” these men meant that the Enlightenment project’s elevation of reason over the “monkish superstition” of religion is responsible for the demise of the sacred and the central role Christian morality played. Because society has moved beyond good and evil — which does not diminish evil, but only makes it relative — they said that it is up to each individual to define good and evil for themselves.

However, the absence of any universals — whether they be truth or morality — is problematic for a free market libertarian. If people create truths for themselves — such as the concept of human rights — then that means that some people will not enjoy them.

Secondly, if rights are not universal, but simply the product of people’s self-creation, what obligation does a government entity have to respect them in all members of a citizenry, or for individual people to respect one another? A concept of God is necessary for a concept of universal human rights. If rights are not universal, then there is no need for government to respect them universally. Consent alone cannot suffice.

Irwin also offers a chance to consider what moral and metaphysical foundations will actually allow us to defend human rights—central to a classically liberal vision of political economy. Sartre categorically denies the possibility of God’s existence. Some dispute that a notion of God is necessary to have human rights, but there no denying the views of early rights theorists—from Locke to Jefferson—were grounded in God, or that human dignity, the philosophical foundation of human rights, is explicitly grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition. All Irwin needed to do was include existentialists that did not make such categorical and unprovable claims about God’s existence — like Pascal and Kierkegaard who stated that, because God’s existence cannot be proved, choosing to have faith in his existence was the only way to lend life meaning — and he would allow himself room to make the case for rights, and therefore the free market, within the framework of his existentialism.

Concluding Unscientific Postscript

In a way, Irwin’s very project is an exercise in existentialism: part of the existential drive for authenticity involves the pursuit of inner cohesion, which perhaps explains Irwin’s desire to reconcile the free market and existential philosophy — two things he really, really likes — in the first place.

The drive for veracity and internal consistency is a noble one. But Irwin’s perplexing commitment to Sartre hinders his success. The only result is an incomplete account of existentialism and a weakened case for how existentialism is compatible with free markets.

However, Irwin’s shortcomings in this endeavor are also existential in nature. In his Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Søren Kierkegaard directly confronts G.W.F. Hegel, who was emblematic of the rationalist and systematic school of philosophy that Kierkegaard thought woefully insufficient to help us grapple with life. Kierkegaard thought it was impossibly arrogant to pretend that in any endeavor of ideas, the philosopher stands outside the system as an objective observer, such as what Irwin attempts to do with this project. Irwin is, like anyone, captive to their own biases.

It is impossible to approach any enterprise without our subjective perspectives, and therefore impossible to understand anything in an entirely objective way. It is therefore necessary to have humility in our epistemology, understanding that there is much in life that does not and will never make sense — that there will always mysteries the cannot be solved, and ideas that cannot be reconciled.

For Kierkegaard, life is an amalgamation of incomprehensible paradoxes. Yet while we need not resign ourselves to Kierkegaard’s irrationalism to cope with life’s mysteries, Irwin’s shortcomings remind us of the humility necessary to cope with life in an absurd world.

Alexandra Hudson
Alexandra Hudson is a writer based in Indianapolis, IN. She has held posts at the Federalist Society, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, and earned an MSc in comparative social policy at the London School of Economics as a Rotary Scholar. Most recently, she was an appointee at the U.S. Department of Education. She enjoys reading about and discussing European history and philosophy. She currently working on a book on civility. Follow her on Twitter @LexiOHudson

Why Jordan Peterson Is the Last Gentleman

Jordan Peterson (Youtube)

Dr. Jordan Peterson, a Canadian professor of clinical psychology at the University of Toronto and Great Books autodidact, has captured public imagination and outrage in equal measure. He has garnered wide-ranging interest—with his lectures on YouTube being viewed upwards of 300 million times—in a way that other intellectual heavyweights from the Great White North, such as Charles Taylor and George Grant before him, have not.

His supporters acclaim him as an ardent defender of free speech and a voice for common sense. His opponents condemn him as an obtuse bigot. But love him or hate him, there can be no doubt that Peterson has started an important conversation about the limits of free speech, the downsides of coercive “group-think,” and how the principles of a free society can help us live together amidst deep difference.

While Peterson’s arguments against political correctness are what he is most well-known for, the real substance of his ideas is surprisingly difficult to pin down. This is partly because obtaining a thorough understanding of his views requires sifting through hundreds of hours of YouTube videos and also partly because Peterson’s political philosophy is unusually multifaceted. Not to mention that he spends most of his time thinking and teaching about people and ideas that the average person hasn’t necessarily heard of (let alone have strong thoughts on), and that do not have obvious political implications.

While simplistic, Manichean characterizations rarely do anyone justice, Peterson in particular, because his interests are expansive and his breadth of reading vast, requires a more meticulous examination. Without seeing the questions that he is trying to answer it is impossible to fully understand where he is coming from and what he is trying to say. Indeed, many attempts to capture his thought neglect to thoroughly examine the way that his most salient intellectual influences inform his thinking. “I’m not making a case for conservatism. I’m not here to make a political case,” he claims in his “12 Principles for a 21st Century Conservatism,” a YouTube video with nearly half a million views. “I’m here to make a philosophical and psychological case. That’s what I’ve been doing all along.” So, to understand Peterson let us to turn to the literature, ideas, and individuals with which Peterson has spent his life grappling.

“While my brother [Frasier] is a Freudian, I am a Jungian—so there’ll be no blaming Mother today.”  — Niles Crane (Frasier)

Unlike other thinkers characterized as conservatives, Peterson’s chief influence is not Augustine or Aquinas or Locke or Burke or Strauss or Hayek—it is the Swiss psychologist, and (part-time) friend of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung. Jung’s influence on Peterson is explicit—for Peterson to mention Jung only once in a lecture is anomalous—and Jungian psychology is also manifest in Peterson’s political philosophy.

Central to Jung’s psychology is “individuation,” or the process by which a person becomes fully himself as an individual by developing personality traits, cultivating interests, discovering fears, uncovering foibles, and establishing beliefs. Jung dedicated his life to studying the process of become fully human, or “personal quest for wholeness.” Among many (many) other things, Peterson takes from Jung is this emphasis on the individual: for Peterson, respect for the individual’s ability to form and hold opinions of their own, is fundamental.

For example, Peterson has come under fire for standing in firm opposition to “left-wing activists” who he claims use the plight of transgendered individuals to force their ideological orthodoxy on others. For Peterson, individual expression and the zealous pursuit of truth is paramount, even at the expense of someone’s feelings. In the now-notorious interview with Cathy Newman on Britain’s Channel 4 News, Peterson asserts that the philosophy that drives trans activists is, at bottom, the same as the leftist tyrannical regimes of Maoist China and Soviet Russia: these philosophies, according to Peterson, assume that group identity is paramount and exalt group identity over identity of the individual. For Peterson, who attests to spending tens of thousands hours studying totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, the politics of group identity and political correctness are antithetical to respecting an individual’s ability to be and to think for oneself.

Existence precedes essence

In addition to being a thoroughgoing Jungian, Peterson, who has called himself “an existentialist at heart,” draws deeply on existentialism throughout his lectures. In particular, Peterson finds in existentialism support for his belief in the importance of individual identity and for his posture of intellectual humility.

If there is a “creed” of existentialism it is, perhaps, the words of French existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre—existence precedes essence—which upended the traditional view that a thing’s fundamental nature (essence) is more foundational than the mere fact of something’s being (existence). From this, existentialists maintain that there are intrinsic and insurmountable limitations on our ability to reason our way to the truths of the fundamental nature of the world. Rather than being a systematic and comprehensive system of thought, existentialists are united in their rejection the “iron-cage” of reason, claiming that there remain important parts of our existence that reason cannot help us understand.

In his Pensées, French scientist and proto-existentialist Blaise Pascal anticipates and elaborates Sartre’s formula exquisitely:

Man is only a reed, the weakest in nature, but he is a thinking reed. There is no need for the whole universe to take up arms to crush him: a vapor, a drop of water is enough to kill him. But even if the universe were to crush him, man would still be nobler than his slayer, because he knows that he is dying and the advantage the universe has over him. The universe knows none of this. Thus, our dignity consists in thought.

Hence, for the existentialists, our rational thought, a fundamental attribute of our existence, is one means by which we determine our character, the direction of our life, our personality — our essence.

This sense of agency is fundamental to Peterson’s worldview. Peterson emphasizes personal responsibility and efficacy in what he decries as a rights-obsessed culture. He opines that modern society has emphasized rights at the expense of duties, promoting instead a culture of victimhood. This helps explain why the world is watching a heretofore unknown Canadian academic: his message reminds people that they can control their life, and that their life matters. Indeed, in some respects Peterson is a sort of intellectual Tony Robbins.

But his point is not just appealing. It is important. Peterson, who believes that life has genuine meaning, says that attaching correlative responsibilities to rights is an important part of how humans find meaning. To focus on rights without duties results in solipsism and unhappiness. Without the “voluntary adoption of responsibility” to family, friends, community, or country, our lives lack direction and purpose.

Peterson also borrows from existentialism a skepticism of reason’s pretensions. Responding to the rationalism of the philosophers of his day, notoriously inscrutable Danish existentialist Søren Kierkegaard wrote, “People understand me so poorly that they don’t even understand my complaint about them not understanding me.” Kierkegaard thought that contemporary society worshiped the idol of knowledge which led to a culture of hubris and bourgeois vanity. His solution, as any student of Kierkegaard knows, was to make his writing as impenetrable as possible. By making his ideas incredibly difficult to access, he aimed at dismantling the Enlightenment notion of confidence in science and knowledge of the world around them doing so.

Similarly, Peterson recognizes the limitations of science and rationality. For Peterson, rights and science only tell us what we can do. We need responsibility guided by morality to tells us what we ought to do. It requires intellectual humility to recognize the limits of science to answer life’s important questions. As Pascal so beautifully wrote, “The heart has reasons that reason cannot understand.”

Peterson’s commitment to the idea that there are things that science cannot answer or explain—but that are nevertheless an important part of the human experience—is integral to his thinking. As he stated in his Biblical Series on Chaos & Order, “The evidence of religious experience is incontrovertible. It is also inexplicable.” Peterson reminds us that there is much to life that is miraculous and misunderstood, and that leaving room for life’s incomprehensibilities may allow us to be less likely to cut off, demonize, and condemn those with whom they disagree.

“Nihilists!… I mean, say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos.” — Walter Sobchak (The Big Lebowski)

In his Parable of the Madman (from The Joyful Wisdom), Fredrich Nietzsche famously wrote, “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.” By this, Nietzsche proclaimed that the Enlightenment’s confidence in scientism and human knowledge had finally and forever displaced the previously central role of sacred truth and Christianity. Unmoored from the God-ordained morality and values of Christianity, life is defined by cosmic purposelessness and suffering. The world has no objective order or reality. It is up to us to define our own truth, purpose and reality for ourselves.

Much of Peterson’s philosophy is responding to Nietzsche, and it does so in two ways: He agrees with Nietzsche that life is hard and will inevitably involve enduring misery. To survive, one must be prepared for this. But for Peterson, preparation does not involve defining one’s own truth and reality, as Nietzsche said. Instead of assuming the world will conform to one’s own will, Peterson advocates the importance of taking responsibility for oneself and living in accordance with the objective reality of the world around us.

For Peterson, there is objective truth and reality, and we cannot simply transcend all moral frameworks and create truth for ourselves. As Peterson frequently reiterates: “Pain is the fundamental reality. It’s the only thing that people will not deny.” We are not beings who can create a moral framework out of nothing; we are instead destined to live within the constraints of life in order to survive and succeed.

To deny these constraints leads to chaos—internallyinterpersonally, societally. This is the main point of Peterson’s recently released Twelve Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, wherein he lays out a moral framework that he believes will help people live life to the fullest—however unavoidably tragic life may be. Rule Eight: “Tell the Truth—or, at least, don’t lie,” addresses the Nietzschean, post-modern axiom of the subjectivity of truth head on. Peterson contends that we intuitively know what truth is, and that “lies make you weak and you can feel it . . . you cannot get away with warping the structure of being.” Thinking that you can lie and get away with it is arrogance, and to act in disharmony with the rules of the universe invariably has negative, long-term consequences.

Similarly, Rule Seven — Pursue what is meaningful, not what is expedient — also defies Nietzschean nihilism and corresponds with Peterson’s understanding of an objective reality. “Meaning is what we do to buttress our self against the tragedy of life … our pursuit of meaning is an instinct. Perhaps our deepest instinct… meaning is the antidote to the malevolence of life.” To deny meaning exists, to pursue happiness instead of meaning, or to seek meaning in the wrong things will lead to chaos.

But Peterson borrows from, in addition to criticizing, Nietzsche. Both men rail against the “last man,” the human type that seeks to shirk risk and responsibility in favor of comfort and safety. Like Nietzsche, Peterson’s view offers an “ideal human type” that lives by a superior code. For Nietzsche it was Übermenschthat lived by a code of his own creation— a “master morality” of “might makes right,” also popularized by Thrasymachus in Book I of Plato’s Republic. For Peterson, the ideal is a mode of existence wherein one lives within the preordained structure of the universe and nobly grits the challenges that life throws their way.

The Last Gentleman

The above illustrates the diversity of Peterson’s intellectual interests. But while these examples can be a helpful starting point to understanding themes Peterson enjoys returning to, they are by no means exhaustive. Other of Peterson’s recurring intellectual influences that were not discussed above and not have obvious political implications, but are worth examining in their own right, are: Peterson’s view on the importance of dreams (they are, after all, the subconscious mind communicating to us); prehistoric myth, particularly the creation narrative of the Sumerian deity, Marduk (which is a metaphor of how to use language to confront that which frightens and upsets us most deeply); dominance hierarchy (which the close study of lobsters, our ancestors from billions of years past, can greatly inform); and the centrality of Hebrew Scripture to understanding wisdom so as to become fully human (which teaches us lessons about discipline, sacrifice, and faith that science and rationality cannot).

The above also illustrate the emphasis Peterson places on how the inner life informs our outer conduct. In this way, Peterson stays true to the literal meaning of psychology, Greek for the “study of the soul.” We can be grateful to Peterson’s reinvigorated discussion of the inner life, as today, far too little attention is paid to the care of the inner life, our deepest self, our essence — perhaps because it is infinitely complex and it is far easier to pursue the simple and certain.

Alexandra Hudson

Alexandra Hudson is a writer based in Indianapolis, IN. She has held posts at the Federalist Society, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, and earned an MSc in comparative social policy at the London School of Economics as a Rotary Scholar. Most recently, she was an appointee at the U.S. Department of Education. She enjoys reading about and discussing European history and philosophy. She currently working on a book on civility. Follow her on Twitter @LexiOHudson

The Trump Administration’s Accomplishments—in Spite of the Deep State

March 17, 2017: US President Donald Trump hold a joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the White House. Nicole S. Glass/

“Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” Or, apparently, a politico.

Mike Lofgren, author of The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government is a retired Hill staffer keen to exact his wrath on virtually every DC institution conceivable—from Bill Clinton’s dalliances to the “tired” décor of the Capitol Hill Club, which “has always manage to maintain an ambiance about 30 years before whatever the present date is, perhaps in keeping with Republican social policy.”

Lofgren’s sometimes-wandering rant does have a consistent theme: a coterie lurking behind the scenes, called the “Deep State” and consisting of elite industry and governmental insiders, controls the United States Government regardless of the outcomes of elections. The Deep State is the Puppet Master, and democratically-elected representatives are their puppets. Elected officials are pawns; it is Wall Street financiers, national security experts, and K Street Lobbyists who run the show.

Lofgren elevates the Deep State as a framework for understanding a litany of realities in contemporary American society: the National Security Agency’s ubiquitous surveillance, wealth inequality, the decline of social mobility, the war in Iraq (and, by extension, the Syrian Civil War), the 2008 financial crisis, mass incarceration, the destruction of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina, and mercilessly much more.

According to Lofgren, the Deep State is to blame for many of the aforementioned political maladies and is the explanation for the insubstantial variance between the Bush and Obama administrations: even if they had wanted to, newly elected officeholders were prevented from effecting meaningful change by the “shadow government” of technocrats.

In virtually every policy area he discusses, Lofgren states the status quo to be so foolish that it can only be explained by the maliciousness or greed of Deep State technocrats. But in failing to seriously engage in any of the policy areas he discusses, he shows himself to be out of his depth. He often neglects to show that the policies he condemns were bad in the first place, or if they were bad, he avoids discussion of the role that bad incentives and central planning had to play in the bad outcomes. He never comes close to showing that they were so self-evidently bad that they can be attributed to the the Deep State’s self-serving and malevolent ways.

To take one example, Lofgren condemns the 2008 Wall Street bailouts as the inevitable outcome of a giant con played on the American people by high-flying financiers (who play one part of the multi-faceted Deep State). But he utterly avoids engaging with the arguments made in favor of the Troubled Asset Relief Plan, which authorized $700 billion to buy distressed assets and inject capital into banks and other financial institutions (the Dodd-Frank Act later reduced this authorization to $475 billion). There is a good argumentthat the bailouts were necessary to stabilize an economy on the verge of collapse, but Lofgren airily dismisses this as a mere “debatable counterfactual.” Nor does Lofgren mention that the Treasury Department has received about $442 billion in repayments, dividends, and other proceeds under TARP, $7.5 billion more than the $435 billion it has disbursed with the program.

This is not to say that the bailout was wise policy. It is possible that the moral hazard it created outweighs the stability it brought to financial markets—and it is possible that it actually exacerbated rather than mitigatedmarket instability. Unfortunately, Lofgren makes no attempt to actually demonstrate that the 2008 financial bailouts were foolishly counterproductive. He instead leads his reader through a series of self-congratulatory reflections on the outcome of the financial crisis—all rather shoehorned into the mold of his thesis of the Deep State’s pervasive power. Rather than informing his readers or engaging in this, admittedly technical, debate, Lofgren’s objective is to categorize the response to the 2008 financial crisis with recent national security crises—all of which, he argues, consolidated power in the hands of the Deep State elite.

Lofgren’s conspicuous unfamiliarity with—or, more charitably, disinterest in—substantive legal and policy disputes is fully on display in his discussion of the jurisprudence of today’s Supreme CourtHe asserts that the the Supreme Court’s decisions can all be explained by the commitment of five of its members to “the prerogative of the rich to control the political process of the country.” He cites as evidence the 2012 NFIB v. Sebelius (which upheld the Affordable Care Act in the face of a constitutional challenge) and the Court’s two recent major campaign finance decisions, 2010’s Citizens United (which held that a portion of McCain-Feingold prohibiting corporations and unions from advocating for or against candidates during certain periods before elections violated the First Amendment ) and 2014’s McCutcheon (which similarly invalidated a statutory provision limiting the amount individuals could contribute in the aggregate across multiple candidates over a two-year period)Lofgren focuses on McCutcheon, and his analysis, such as it is, proceeds as follows: the case was not really about aggregate contribution limits, but was about “what constitutes a bribe.” The Court’s conclusion that political donations are not bribes was premised on its belief that “private money … causes democracy to thrive,” a belief so obviously wrong that the only explanation for this decision, as well as Citizens United, is a bias in favor of the moneyed class: these “were not cases about campaign finance laws nor were they, despite the artful smoke screen, about free speech or about whether money constitutes speech. They were really about upholding the superior political privileges and political access of rich interests in society.”

Lofgren levels quite a charge, and one would expect it to be supported by more than a superficial summary and dismissal of the Court’s reasoning. The Court’s decision was clearly premised on three propositions: that donating money to a political campaign is a form of expression protected by the First Amendment; that the ability to make these donations can therefore only be restricted if necessary to further an important objective; and that limiting the aggregate amount of money an individual can contribute across myriad candidates does vanishingly little to accomplish the government’s ostensible goal of preventing corruption. Lofgren fails to so much as gesture at a rebuttal to any of this.

The Deep State: A Feature of Democracy, or a Bug of Bureaucracy?

Lofgren vigorously maintains that his thesis is not a conspiracy theory. What, if any, truth is there to the concept of the Deep State more broadly? It is true that in government there is a large civil service across the branches of federal government that do not change with elections. This is absolutely essential. Career bureaucrats in the federal government, as political appointees in this administration have cited elsewhere, can at times be barriers to innovation and achieving policy goals. However, the career staff have both the institutional knowledge of government operations and subject matter expertise that every new administration needs if they hope to accomplish any policy objective. Political appointees have the vision of where they want to go, and career bureaucrats have the map that show them how to get there. It is also worth mentioning that Lofgren’s thesis paints the multitudinous men and women in federal service with a single stroke—a broad and unjust characterization. This overarching assumption about the intent of these hundreds of thousands of individuals is to ignore their agency and dignity as human beings—not to mention his assumption of the unity of their interests (an argument that flies in the face of Federalist 51).

Additionally, the fact that circumstances are so slow to change despite changes in political administrations shouldn’t be surprising: This is a feature of democracy, not a bug of bureaucracy. When Secretary DeVos wants to ‘Rethink School’, she can do so only within the authority that Congress delineated to the Department of Education and within the constraints of the Administrative Procedures Act. America’s founding fathers, skeptical as they were of human nature, envisioned a division of powers so that no one person or branch of government could set the course of our country. Slow and tempered progress in the executive branch is crucial to living in a pluralistic society—liberals and conservatives alike are stymied by the same constitutional constraints in government. In this way, law is a harness that protects the democratic process.

If anything, Lofgren’s thesis about the insidious Deep State—a shadow government that pursues an agenda of its own design—makes the achievements of President Trump and his Cabinet in their first year all the more remarkable. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s thoughtful and tempered approach to rescinding the misguided Title IX Guidance of the Obama Administration; Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s efforts to ensure the continuing demise of ISIS; EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt ending the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan.  Both the President and his Cabinet deserve credit for these accomplishments in light of many challenges—not least of all, the Deep State.

If Lofgren really cared about resolving some of the complex and important policy issues he discusses, he would have written a very different book. He might have engaged seriously with the people and ideas that he so readily condemns. He could have occasionally shown that the inefficacy of current policies really is due to the influence of self-interested elites (Mancur Olson taught us, after all, to expect such outcomes).

Tocqueville and the Deep State

French political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville wrote of bureaucracy, “However enlightened and skillful a central power may be, it cannot of itself embrace all the details of the life of a great nation.” As flawed as it is, Lofgren’s work points us toward the truth of Tocqueville’s insight: the world is a big place with many complex problems, and it is tempting to think that complex problems require complex solutions that are best orchestrated by technocrats. And sometimes this is true. But often these complex human problems are best approached by those closest to the problem—those at the localized level.

While the Deep State may not be as insidious or dangerous as Lofgren suggests, it is nevertheless true that bloated government is at best unfair to taxpayers and at worse dangerous to those affected by well-intended but misguided policies.  For this reason, it remains all the more important that we support principled elected officials committed to limited government and the decentralization of political authority.

That is, to support those who will work tirelessly to limit their own authority.

Alexandra Hudson

Alexandra Hudson is a writer based in Indianapolis, IN. She has held posts at the Federalist Society, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, and earned an MSc in comparative social policy at the London School of Economics as a Rotary Scholar. Most recently, she was an appointee at the U.S. Department of Education. She enjoys reading about and discussing European history and philosophy. She currently working on a book on civility. Follow her on Twitter @LexiOHudson