At a Liberty Fund conference late last year, a new friend recommended that I read Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s 1978 commencement address at Harvard. It was in large part his critique of Western, and especially U.S., society. I had read it decades earlier but had no clear memory of it. So I reread it twice.

Unlike her, I was not so impressed. He did put his finger on a number of  upsetting trends in U.S. and I’ll mention a few. But:

. he was unduly pessimistic about how the Western world would fare,

. he was so unappreciative of the ways that some people use their freedom that it made me wonder if he wanted them to be free,

. he didn’t distinguish between “negative freedom,” a term I hate but that is used to refer to freedom from the initiation of force, and “positive freedom,” which is used to refer to the government taxing some to provide to others,

.  and he was way too dismissive of increases in our standard of living.

Responding completely to his lengthy piece (lengthy, that is, for a commencement address) would take too much time and so I’ll hit the highlights. I’ll do it in two parts.

Because of the difficulty of writing his name each time, I’ll refer to Solzhenitsyn as AS.

AS starts by saying that he is a truth teller and that “truth seldom is pleasant; it is almost invariably bitter.”

That doesn’t ring true to me. When I look at various (true) statistics about how the world is faring, for example, whether on war, crime, life expectancy, disease, nutrition, violence, and poverty, the news is that the world is getting better on all those dimensions.

AS makes a good point about Israel, writing that “it stands apart from the Western world in that its state system is fundamentally linked to religion.” Some of my friends who are more pro-Israel than I sometimes seem not to understand this. I point out to them that whenever I have heard Bibi Netanyahu speak (and I’ve heard a number of his excellent speeches), he has never referred to Israel without mentioning at least once that it is a “Jewish state.” It’s hard for me to be a fan of a country, whether it be Israel or Iran, that has a state religion. And no, this is not false equivalence. To say that two countries share something in common is not to say that they are equivalent. Differences in degree matter.

AS writes:

A decline in courage may be the most striking feature which an outside observer notices in the West in our days. The Western world has lost its civic courage, both as a and sepa- rately, in each country, each government, each political party, and of course in the United Nations. Such a decline in courage is particularly noticeable among the ruling groups and the intellectual elite, causing an impression that the loss of courage extends to the entire society.

That’s hard to measure, but my casual empiricism says that this is true, and even more true than when he spoke 40 years ago. It was somewhat common, for example, to see people passionately defending the freedom of speech of those they disagreed with. That happens less so now and I think part of the reason is that some of those who would like to defend others’ freedom are cowardly.

Still, there are strong signs of courage everywhere. Think of the recent rescue of the Thai cave boys, for example, and for an excellent telling of that story, see this.

AS writes:

Now at last, during recent decades, technical and social progress has permitted the realization of such aspirations [for freedom]: the welfare state. Every citizen has been granted the desired freedom and material goods in such quantity and of such quality as to guarantee in theory the achievement of happiness, in the morally inferior sense which has come into being during those same decades.

Here he seems not to distinguish between “positive freedom,” government granting us goodies, and “negative freedom,” our freedom to pursue our goals without others initiating force against us.

AS writes:

The individual’s independence from many types of state pressure has been guaranteed; the majority of people have been granted well-being to an extent their fathers and grandfathers could not even dream about; it has become possible to raise young people according to this ideal, leading them to physical splendor, happiness, possession of material goods, money, and leisure–to an almost unlimited freedom of enjoyment. So who should now renounce all this? Why and for what should one risk one’s precious life in defense of common values, and particularly in such nebulous cases as when the security of one’s nation must be defended in a distant country?

Although AS was clearly critical of this “independence from many types of state pressure,” I like it, but, unfortunately, we have less independence from state pressure than we had then. Try carrying a bottle of wine through TSA, or forbidding them from touching or X-raying you, to take one of many possible examples.

As for “the security of one’s nation” having to “be defended in a distant country,” I think he’s talking about the Vietnam war, where the security of the United States was never at risk. In present times, even if you think our security is threatened by people in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Iran, the U.S. government actually has found over one million people willing to defend the United States.

AS writes:

Any conflict is solved according to the letter of the law, and this is considered to be the supreme solution. If one is right from a legal point of view, nothing more is required; nobody may mention that one could still be not entirely right, and urge self-restraint, a willingness to renounce such legal rights, sacrifice, and selfless risk: it would sound simply absurd. One almost never sees voluntary self-restraint.

Really? This is a twofer. First, he seems to be dumping on the rule of law. Second, he’s right that many people think that if it’s legal, that’s enough, even if it’s wrong; but practicing self-restraint voluntarily is something one almost never sees? AS seemed to be observing a different society than the one I’ve observed. I would more like more self-restraint, but I regularly see people looking out for others’ well-being, whether it comes to smoking or playing loud music, to take two examples that immediately come to mind.

AS writes:

It is feasible and easy everywhere to undermine administrative power, which, in fact, has been drastically weakened in all Western countries. The defense of individual rights has reached such extremes as to make society as a whole defenseless against certain individuals. It is time, in the West, to defend not so much human rights as human obligations.

AS was writing in 1978 and what he said then wasn’t true and is even less true today. Try buying an imported truck, either then or now, without paying a 25% tariff. Try building a house in Pacific Grove without getting permission and try getting permission. Try cutting a damn 4.5-inch branch off a tree in Pacific Grove without getting permission–and paying steeply for that permission. And, OMG, try running a retail grocery store in major parts of California and bagging your customers’ groceries in plastic bags. Notice also that AS is vague about what people’s obligations are. It’s hard to evaluate without knowing.

Destructive and irresponsible freedom has been granted boundless space. Society appears to have little defense against the abyss of human decadence, such as, for example, the misuse of liberty for moral violence against young people, motion pictures full of pornography, crime, and horror. This is considered to be part of freedom, and theoretically counterbalanced by the young people’s right not to look or not to accept. Life organized legalistically has thus shown its inability to defend itself against the corrosion of evil.

I don’t know what he means by “moral violence.” My sense is that, whatever it means, it doesn’t include violence. There are motion pictures full of pornography, crime, and horror, and this is part of freedom. And yes, young people, and people like me, do have the right not to look and not to accept. I quit watching Breaking Bad, for example, because I found it so horrible. It’s true that it’s harder for young people to turn away. But here’s where I wondered whether he was calling for censorship and bans. I don’t know. I think he was purposefully vague. That, by the way, doesn’t sound courageous to me.

AS writes:

Strangely enough, though the best social conditions have been achieved in the West, there still is criminality, and there even is considerably more of it than in the pauperized and lawless Soviet society. (There is a huge number of prisoners in our [Soviet] camps who are termed criminals, but most of them never committed any crime; they merely tried to defend themselves against a lawless state, resorting to means outside of a legal framework.)

I’m not sure there was more criminality here than in the Soviet Union in 1978, but does AS realize that part of the reason might be the drastic penalties on criminality in the Soviet Union? Also, I wonder what he would think of the step-up in imprisonment since he spoke in 1978. Would he applaud it? I don’t know.