By: Jonah Goldberg – national review.com – April 12, 2018
Freedom is a fragile thing and is never more than one generation away from extinction. It is not ours by inheritance; it must be fought for and defended constantly by each generation, for it comes only once to a people. Those who have known freedom and then lost it have never known it again.
— Ronald Reagan, 1967
Let’s begin with some somewhat unusual assertions for these pages.
Capitalism is unnatural. Democracy is unnatural. Human rights are unnatural. God didn’t give us these things, or anything else. We stumbled into modernity accidentally, not by any divine plan.
When the Founders said “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, . . .” they cheated. It is not self-evident that our Creator endowed humans with unalienable rights. Something self-evident is, by definition, obvious, needing no demonstration. The existence of gravity is obvious. It is self-evident that fire burns. Yet it’s hardly obvious to everyone there’s even a Creator.
And that brings me to another assertion: There is no God, at least not in this argument. I assert this not because I’m an atheist (I’m not), but because I don’t want God’s help for my case. “Because God says so” is the greatest appeal to authority, and the appeal to authority is a classic logical fallacy, effective only for those who are pre-committed to that authority. You can’t persuade an atheist that God’s on your side any more than you can persuade a Christian you’re right because Baal says so.
Yet today’s political culture increasingly rejects persuasion, recognized as far back as Aristotle as the essence of politics. Everything noble about the Enlightenment assumes the possibility of persuasion, through reason, evidence, and argument. Our political system was designed to be deliberative. Deliberation is a waste of time if minds cannot be changed. But today, partisans left and right value purity and passion over persuasion. Opponents aren’t potential converts; they’re an abstract and unredeemable them, and their tears, we’re told, are delicious.
William F. Buckley Jr. founded National Review to match the Left’s best arguments head-on with the Right’s best arguments. We didn’t win every battle (and some battles we didn’t deserve to win), but conservatism’s strength and success derived from a fearless desire to argue the merits. National Review has stayed loyal to that mission, but much of the conservative movement it helped create has resorted to assertion over argument, invective over reason. I want my argument to persuade those who don’t already agree with me — on the left and, increasingly, on the right.
Those who hate capitalism, scorn the Founding, and assume that Western civilization is inherently villainous or oppressive will be persuaded they are wrong only by arguments on terms they accept. And today, those terms are secular, often atheist, materialistic, Darwinian, and utilitarian. So let’s meet them on their turf.
Humans are animals. We evolved from other animals, who evolved from ever more embarrassing animals, and before that from a humiliating sea of primitive critters in the primordial stew. Almost everything we take for granted today — technology, prosperity, medicine, human rights, the rule of law — is a novel, unnatural environment for humans, created by humans.
Joshua Greene of Harvard’s Moral Cognition Laboratory offers a useful thought experiment (which I’ve modified slightly). Imagine you were an alien monitoring the progress of Homo sapiens on backwater Earth, visiting once every 10,000 years.
Starting 250,000 years ago, you would record the following:
Visit 1: Bands of semi-hairless, upright, nomadic apes foraging and fighting for food.
Visit 2: Bands of semi-hairless, upright, nomadic apes foraging and fighting for food. No change.
Visit 3: Bands of semi-hairless, upright, nomadic apes foraging and fighting for food. No change.
You’d write virtually the same thing roughly 23 times over 230,000 years, a few modestly interesting details about changes in migration, diet, and crude tools notwithstanding. On the 24th visit, you’d note some remarkable developments. Many scattered human populations have discovered basic agriculture and animal domestication. Some use metal for weapons and tools. Clay pottery has advanced considerably. Rudimentary mud and grass shelters dot some landscapes (introducing a fairly recent concept in human history: the home). But there are no roads, no stone buildings.
Still, an impressive advance in such a short time: merely 100 centuries.
Returning 10,000 years later, your spaceship would doubtless get spotted by NORAD. You might even arrive in time to see Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction.
In short: Nearly all of humanity’s progress has transpired in the last 10,000 years.
But even this is misleading. It’s like saying that the combined net worth of Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, and me exceeds $150 billion. For 97 percent of that 10,000 years, nearly all of humanity lived in squalor. If the Garden of Eden existed, it was a slum.
Almost everything about modernity, progress, and enlightened society emerged in the last 300 years. If the last 200,000 years of humanity were one year, nearly all material progress came in the last 14 hours. In the West, and everywhere that followed our example, incomes rose, lifespans grew, toil lessened, energy and water became ubiquitous commodities.
Virtually every objective, empirical measure that capitalism’s critics value improved with the emergence of Western liberal-democratic capitalism. Did it happen overnight? Sadly, no. But in evolutionary terms, it did.
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