Get the Story Straight
By Arnold Kling
In Suicide of the West,1 Jonah Goldberg offers an ambitious intellectual defense of modern conservatism. His argument is grounded in a theory of cultural anthropology in which the stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves play a crucial role in political economy. If we tell the right story, we can maintain political order and continue to make economic progress. But instead the wrong story, told by people he labels Romantics, threatens to undo what he calls “the Miracle,” the progress that took off as a consequence of the Age of Reason.
In Goldberg’s view, the story that we should be telling ourselves goes something like this:
1- Once upon a time, human beings emerged as a species. For hundreds of thousands of years, we lived in small, primitive bands of hunter-gatherers. It was during this period that our human nature developed. Indeed, the terms “nature” and “natural” permeate Suicide of the West, appearing at an average rate of close to once per page.
2- Our human nature made us outstanding in our ability to cooperate as a tribal band, generally in tribes of less than 150 people. But our nature also made us unable to live peacefully with other bands. Encounters between different bands were typically violent. Because of this, each tribe had to be self-sufficient. A tribe could make little or no use of the advantages of specialization.
3- About 10,000 years ago, humans developed the ability to form larger agricultural societies. We told stories that justified extended hierarchies. These stories encouraged people to accept social classes, with people in lower classes obeying those in higher classes. The stories supported the institution of slavery and exalted authoritarian rulers.
4- Starting around 3,000 years ago, we began telling religious stories that encouraged peaceful cooperation with strangers based on shared beliefs about God. These stories helped hold larger societies together for long periods, but they also discouraged commerce and innovation.
5- Starting around 300 years ago, we in the West began to tell stories that insisted on the autonomy of every individual. These stories also praised commerce and innovation. Commerce and innovation produced a dramatic increase in economic well-being. The insistence on the autonomy of the individual supported the institutions of democracy. It gradually led to the promotion of equal rights for all, including ethnic minorities and women. The institutions of the free market and democratic equality gave us the Miracle.
6- But the Miracle is fragile. It is threatened by the stories told by the Romantics, from Rousseau and Marx down to present-day progressives, artists, and intellectuals. These stories do not express gratitude for the Miracle produced by democratic capitalism. Instead, they tell a story in which democratic capitalism enables some people to exploit others and despoil the environment. They claim that democratic capitalism can be replaced by something far better.
7- But while the Romantics would tear down the existing order to make way for utopia, Goldberg warns that the destruction of democratic capitalism would instead see us revert to primitive tribalism. Indeed, he sees in the Romantic critiques an appeal to tribal values of equality, unity, and all-encompassing belonging. But reverting to tribal values also means reverting to violence and economic backwardness, as exemplified by Nazism and Communism.
Lest we fall back into a state of primitive tribalism, we need to understand the story of the Miracle. We need to understand that it is unnatural, and we should be grateful for the norms and institutions that restrained human nature in order to make the Miracle possible. We need to recognize the threats posed by those who react against democratic capitalism. We need to counter their stories that emphasize the flaws of our society with stories that emphasize its virtues.
As I noted earlier, Suicide of the West is an ambitious project. It includes a chapter in which Goldberg uses John Locke to personify the ideas that helped produce the Miracle and Jean-Jacques Rousseau to personify what Golderg calls the “reactionary” opposition to Lockean ideas. It includes a chapter on contemporary arts and entertainment as part of the Romantic reaction. It includes a chapter in which Goldberg characterizes President Donald Trump as both a symptom and reinforcement of the dangerous attempts to seek an alternative to democratic capitalism. The breadth of topics challenges the author’s (and editor’s) ability to maintain a consistent tone and direction of argument.
Suicide of the West departs from typical conservatism in that Goldberg heaps high praise on innovation. He agrees with economic historian Deirdre McCloskey that hostility toward innovation is what held back economic progress for most of human history.
This raises the question of why conservatives should fear innovation now. Why not experiment with new family forms, sexual norms, economic policies, and political arrangements? In the past, conservatives feared the consequences for social order of Civil Rights, feminism, and same sex marriage. If they were wrong then, why are they not wrong today?
I believe that Goldberg’s answers to these questions are implicit in his cultural anthropology. He would say that social change that is in the spirit of preserving democratic capitalism and encouraging it to live up to its ideals is good. He would say that social change that is in the spirit of satisfying primitive tribal instincts is bad. But I think that his argument would work better if he made this case more explicitly. I wish that he had given us criteria for telling the difference between movements that seek to improve democratic capitalism and those that instead would promote a reversion to tribalism.
Goldberg says that the stories that today’s educators and cultural leaders are telling us about ourselves are wrong-headed and dangerous. Unless we get our stories right, the worst fears of Suicide of the West may be realized.
 Jonah Goldberg, Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy. Crown Forum, 2018.
*Arnold Kling has a Ph.D. in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of several books, including Crisis of Abundance: Rethinking How We Pay for Health Care; Invisible Wealth: The Hidden Story of How Markets Work; Unchecked and Unbalanced: How the Discrepancy Between Knowledge and Power Caused the Financial Crisis and Threatens Democracy; and Specialization and Trade: A Re-introduction to Economics. He contributed to EconLog from January 2003 through August 2012.
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