Kissinger’s Vision of Society
The Economist of last week reviews the latest book of Henry Kissinger who, at 99, does not seem to have changed intellectually (“The Vision Thing: Henry Kissinger Explains What He Thinks Makes Great Leadership,” July 21, 2022):
In his latest book, Mr Kissinger, an unofficial adviser and friend to many presidents and prime ministers, considers how six leaders from the second half of the 20th century reoriented their countries and made a lasting impact on the world.
These leaders are Konrad Adenauer, Charles de Gaulle, Richard Nixon (of whom Kissinger was Secretary of state), Anwar Sadat, Lee Kuan Yew, and Margaret Thatcher. I would say it is not clear what most of of them, if any, did besides “reorienting their countries” or “their societies,” as the Economist writes, which means bossing people around. It is not clear how these leaders have contributed to advancing the liberty and dignity of individuals. Perhaps Margaret Thatcher is the exception, but we may have doubts that the world would be much different or worse if she had never existed. One can argue that these statocrats at least prevented worse people for getting in power, but that does appear to be Kissinger’s argument.
It seems that, for Kissinger, history is and should be the product of the actions of good and bad leaders. We can hope that God will give us good ones. Since I haven’t read the book, I am open to surprises, but this impression, as conveyed by the Economist’s reviewer, looks consistent with what a casual observer of Kissinger’s career and occasional reader of his newspaper articles can gather.
The reviewer ends by quoting what he says is the book’s warning:
No society can remain great if it loses faith in itself or if it systematically impugns its self-perception.
What does that mean? How can society lose faith in itself? How could it first obtain faith in itself? How can society impugn anything? Where does one find society’s self-perception? Does she reveal it through our collective mouth? Whom does she speak to? I suspect that Kissinger’s answer to the last bit is: to the great leader (flectamus genua), who, he writes on (thanks to Amazon’s “Look Inside”!), represents “the generosity of public spirit which inspires sacrifice and service.” Like, say, Nixon ordering a break-in into the Watergate building? Many of Kissinger’s half-dozen idols, if not Nixon himself, have likely done even worse.
I suspect that Dr. Kissinger has no knowledge of the welfare-economics and social-choice literature that have thrown substantial doubts on the usefulness and even the mathematical possibility of viewing society as something like a big individual of which we are the cells and the leader is the brain.
This line of reflection, I think, points out to the fundamental difference between, on the one hand, the socialist and the conservative, who both favor collective choices over individual choices; and, on the other hand, the classical liberal and the libertarian, who (1) understands that we can only analyze society through methodological individualism, and (2) accepts that, from a normative viewpoint, only human individuals ultimately count and that they count equally.