Paving The Road To Hell

Over the years readers have mentioned to me that too much of the discussion here takes place in the comment-threads, which are often far longer than the posts themselves. The days go by, the posts roll away down the screen, and exchanges that happen days after the original post are, effectively, hidden. I’ve been trying to remind myself to make substantial responses to comments in new posts, but I often forget.

In a recent item I mentioned that most conservatives regard liberals as decent, well-intentioned people. Responding to our consistently leftmost commenter, I wrote:

I think that both conservatives and well-intentioned liberals such as yourself want the same thing, which is to create and sustain a prosperous and well-functioning American society that maximizes opportunity and happiness, in harmony with our nature. What we disagree about is how best to achieve it (and I think this is due in large part to disagreements about the realities of human nature).

This prompted another commenter to inquire:

What I don’t understand is: why do conservatives insist on seeing liberals as good people with bad ideas?

I replied:

I feel that way only because I know so many of them. Looking at history with aloof, post-Enlightenment skepticism, modern liberals have come to believe that the source of humanity’s endless conflict and suffering is the self-confidence of traditional societies — above all, the discriminations that such cultures, in order to survive and flourish, necessarily make between friend and foe, higher and lower, self and other, good and evil, beauty and ugliness, wisdom and folly, sacred and profane, and right and wrong.

The key to harmony and happiness, then, is to reject and abandon all such confident discrimination in favor of radical doubt, which leads in turn to radical relativism. The equally radical — and poisonous — consequence of this is that if nothing and nobody can rightly be judged to be better or worse, or right or wrong, then the world’s obvious inequalities must mean that somehow, somebody cheated.

For example, look at the phenomenal success of Western, Judeo-Christian civilization, which effectively conquered and transformed the entire world, while creating sublime works of art, immeasurable wealth, and lifting billions out of poverty.

There are two possibilities. One is that for such a stupendous conquest to have happened, there must simply have been something inherently superior about such a civilization — and, because cultures do not fall from the sky, something special also about the people who created it.

But if you must rule that out, because it is offensive even to imagine such a thing, then what’s left? Only that somehow it was a dirty trick, a great injustice — and that in the name of justice the villains must be brought down, their perfidy exposed, their altars shattered, their ill-gotten wealth confiscated, and their ambitions confounded.

This necessary insight — that the essence and primum movens of modern liberalism is the pursuit of a radical equality that ultimately eliminates all basis for conflict, and that this pursuit makes necessary a corrosive and ultimately suicidal relativism — is obviously not my own. I had my first serious encounter with it in Allan Bloom’s 1987 book The Closing of the American Mind. Reading that book was what started me on my own road to Damascus.

Bloom wrote this about the students entering his university (my emphasis):

They are unified only in their relativism and in their allegiance to equality. And the two are related in a moral intention. The relativity of truth is not a theoretical insight but a moral postulate, the condition of a free society, or so they see it. They have all been equipped with this framework early on, and it is the modern replacement for the inalienable natural rights that used to be the traditional American grounds for a free society…

The danger they have been taught to fear from absolutism is not error but intolerance. Relativism is necessary to openness; and this is the virtue, the only virtue, which all primary education for more than fifty years has dedicated itself to inculcating. Openness – and the relativism that makes it the only plausible stance in the face of various claims to truth and various ways of life and kinds of human beings – is the great insight of our times. The true believer is the real danger. The study of history and of culture teaches that all the world was mad in the past; men always thought they were right, and that led to wars, persecutions, slavery, xenophobia, racism, and chauvinism. The point is not to correct the mistakes and really be right; rather it is not to think you are right at all.

President Obama recently called the quest for equality “the defining challenge of our time”, and said “it drives everything I do in this office”. It is the Holy Grail.

In my response to our commenter, I ended with a polemical flourish:

And so liberals, with the best of intentions, have made themselves the enemies of everything good, everything true, everything superior, and everything sacred: in short, everything that once made our civilization great.

This is, perhaps, a trifle excessive, though not by much. I certainly do not mean to say that in modern liberalism’s relentless jihad against all forms of inequality, nothing good has been accomplished. Although the capacity to make essential discriminations is necessary for the survival of any living organism — from a paramecium to a civilization — not all discrimination is good or just, and the liberal juggernaut of the late 20th century achieved some genuine moral victories, particularly in its struggle to ensure that all Americans, regardless of race, stood as equals before the law. The problem is that the radically egalitarian anti-discrimination at the heart of modern liberalism knows no limiting principle: it is a “universal acid” that gnaws relentlessly at any vessel that tries to contain it. Having leached away the pernicious discriminations in our society’s laws, it began next to attack the civil, social, and educational framework of society itself — and now dissolves the very foundations upon which our nation, and our civilization, were erected. In particular, it is antagonistic to both truth and liberty: to truth, because it must deny the permanent, natural inequalities of the world, and to liberty, because, as Will Durant reminds us:

[F]reedom and equality are sworn and everlasting enemies, and when one prevails the other dies. Leave men free, and their natural inequalities will multiply almost geometrically, as in England and America in the nineteenth century under laissez-faire. To check the growth of inequality, liberty must be sacrificed, as in Russia after 1917. Even when repressed, inequality grows; only the man who is below the average in economic ability desires equality; those who are conscious of superior ability desire freedom; and in the end superior ability has its way.


  1. disappointed says

    I write as ‘disappointed’ because that how I commented on a previous post. I now expect to react this way.

    May I first acknowledge your superior intellect, your commentators of distinction, all those Harvard and Yale and Cornell alumnae who read and agree with your views. How liberating it must be for you to know that your superior ability keeps you on top, defenders of truth and liberty. So you need not have any conscience whatever about those who are on the bottom of the pile, because that is just the inevitable outcome of natural inequality and therefore not your concern.

    Whether or not you admit your elevated status is due in large part to an accident of birth, and I admit, that I am guessing. There is no denying the impact that being born in the right bed has had for you and those whose natural inclination is to support your stance. You were born into a comfortable home, you were well educated, you were given opportunities that others never were. You were loved and nurtured and you did well.

    Just for one moment, consider that you were swapped over at birth. Brought up in poverty, and sent to sub-standard schools. Do you seriously think that your superior ability would raise you up to your current

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating equality at any price. I don’t believe that is possible, any more than you do. But a nod to the realities of life, that we don’t all start from the same place and a more level playing field would be a good place to begin.

    And before we talk of ‘limiting principles’ we should maybe consider how ludicrous that concept may appear to those who are on the bottom of the ladder. The inequality is so great that those on the top can afford to give a little grace to those at the bottom and be supremely confident that they are not going to get knocked off for the next few hundred years.

    Posted February 1, 2014 at 11:33 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Ah, but you see, this is exactly the sort of thing I was talking about. I don’t doubt for a moment that you are a good and decent person who wants only the best for everyone — who wants every child to grow up in clement conditions for the cultivation and flourishing of his or her natural abilities, and who wants every adult to be able to employ those abilities in just that form of society which best solves the vexatious questions of how to maximize human happiness, and how best to realize our individual, and aggregate, human potential.

    Let me assure you: we want the same thing!

    Posted February 2, 2014 at 12:25 am | Permalink
  3. disappointed says

    No Malcolm, that is not what I meant. I just think some acknowledgement of the disadvantage of those who do not grow up in clement conditions, just a little bit of ‘positive discrimination’ is not heresy. Some of the best and brightest children cannot rise above their station because of the howls of outrage from those who already have every advantage. Rich, privileged
    children can do well in school because they are well so well drilled that they barely need a functioning brain cell. The ones who have fought their way to a reasonable standard against the odds need a bit of recognition that their achievement has been a battle.

    We are always going to have the poor and disadvantaged but for those who make it through there should be some allowances. Civilization is not under threat.

    Posted February 2, 2014 at 1:00 am | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    No, we agree more closely than you think. (Except for that part about civilization not being under threat.)

    “Acknowledgment” is mere wind. If I understand your deeper meaning it is that conditions are NOT clement for many, and that this ought to change — so something needs doing, without objection from those more favorably situated, to ameliorate this.

    Again, let me assure you that I think so too. Is not the goal more than just to “acknowledge” and give “recognition”, but actually to shape our society so as to maximize our flourishing and happiness, and to be in closest harmony with our nature?

    Posted February 2, 2014 at 1:18 am | Permalink
  5. Dom says

    “We are always going to have the poor and disadvantaged but for those who make it through there should be some allowances.”

    Allowances are not important. I don’t profit at all if open-minded people tell me that I am as great a virologist as any one, and I have only been unjustly held back by a poor station in life and micro-aggressions of concealed bigotry. I profit a great deal if great virologists are allowed to profit in a free market and produce that vaccines that protect me.

    Or look at it this way. I am given all the allowances I need if a free market allows talented people to make a profit by producing the goods and services that I want.

    Posted February 2, 2014 at 9:43 am | Permalink
  6. Dom,

    I agree wholeheartedly with what you said.

    For anyone else who may be lurking and who disagrees, may I suggest you read a book that explains how a free-market economy works.

    Posted February 2, 2014 at 1:58 pm | Permalink
  7. disappointed says

    Dom, allowances can be life altering. For instance, if a person who has come from a “bog standard comprehensive” or worse (I think you might be English?)is offered a university a place to study medicine with a requirement of an A and two B’s, and the guy from Eton has to get three A’s, is this a huge injustice?

    I understand the unease that some would feel and the doubts about two tier systems. However there is no concern in the upper echelons for those very able youngsters who are stuck at the bottom of the heap and very little acknowledgement that the advantaged children get everything much more easily.

    Malcolm worries about the death of civilization which I find difficult to reconcile with a discussion about inequality. What I do see though is huge resentment in society at large, for the few who seem to take everything, make others pay for their mistakes and take no responsibility for how things have gone wrong.

    Posted February 2, 2014 at 6:20 pm | Permalink
  8. Loki says

    What I do see though is huge resentment in society at large, for the few who seem to take everything, make others pay for their mistakes and take no responsibility for how things have gone wrong.

    You’ve got one thing right, disappointed. Things sure as sh*t have gone wrong.

    But that part about “taking everything”? You’ve gotta be kidding.

    As our host said –

    The American welfare state already dwarfs the budgets of most of the world’s nations; since the War on Poverty began, we have given over fifteen trillion dollars to the poor in means-tested payouts alone, which is more than the aggregate cost of all the military conflicts in the nation’s history. We spend more on these programs than on national defense. (And this doesn’t even include Social Security and Medicare.) The Census Bureau has estimated that we spend four times what it would take simply to give enough cash to the poor to raise every one of them above the poverty level.

    Posted February 2, 2014 at 10:52 pm | Permalink
  9. @disappointed:

    Your sentimentality is truly touching. I wonder if you “walk the walk” as you “talk the talk”? Have you found someone out there in society who is less fortunate than yourself? And if so, have you already shared your excess fortune with him?

    If we all did our part, everyone would be equally fortunate, just as our society was (with a minimum number of exceptions) prior to the industrial revolution and free-market capitalism.

    Posted February 3, 2014 at 1:19 am | Permalink
  10. disappointed says

    It’s not sentimentality Henry, just a way of looking at things that obviously riles you up. To answer your question, I probably could do a lot more to help others but I haven’t got a great deal of excess fortune, unfortunately!

    Posted February 3, 2014 at 3:57 am | Permalink
  11. According to your “way of looking at things”, you don’t need “a great deal of excess fortune”. You just need more than your less fortunate fellow man.

    Posted February 3, 2014 at 10:31 am | Permalink
  12. BTW, “disappointed”, your “way of looking at things” is equivalent to mathematical averaging, which would lead to a uniform pesonal state of wellbeing (in the limit) throughout society. I submit that such uniformity would insure that everyone would be equally miserable.

    The upside, of course, is that misery loves company.

    Posted February 3, 2014 at 11:02 am | Permalink
  13. disappointed says

    Henry, you extrapolate to the point of absurdity. I was never suggesting a wholesale redistribution of wealth, just a small assistance to youngsters in their school years that could level the playing field, just slightly. That said, those who control the money supply have come to the forefront of our conscientiousness in recent years for obvious reasons. They have an unfortunate habit of helping themselves to the money first, then putting the debt burden onto the state. It was probably ever thus, but in the good times nobody gave a damn. Anyway, I am conflating two separate issues here. Early intervention to give someone a leg up while they are still at school is not at odds with a free market. It just gives the academically able kid from a less advantaged background, a chance to join in, become a banker and fleece the rest of us!

    Posted February 3, 2014 at 7:54 pm | Permalink
  14. “…, just a small assistance to youngsters in their school years that could level the playing field, just slightly.”

    I know of no one who has ever objected to this. You are the one who is being absurd.


    Posted February 3, 2014 at 8:22 pm | Permalink
  15. disappointed says

    I think the subject under discussion shifted somewhat as the comments poured in and confusion is the result. If you’re trying to tell me that I’m a stupid person, that is quite okay but, it won’t make me agree with you.

    Posted February 3, 2014 at 9:46 pm | Permalink
  16. If you won’t agree with me, I won’t be your friend anymore. So there!

    Posted February 3, 2014 at 10:50 pm | Permalink
  17. disappointed says

    I just happened on this article this morning. It seems relevant to the debate and guaranteed to enrage your typical reader.

    Posted February 3, 2014 at 10:51 pm | Permalink
  18. Eric says

    Hey, disappointed, I grew up in poverty. I didn’t graduate from Harvard, Yale, or Cornell. I didn’t want your help then, and I don’t want your help now. In fact, your help would be counterproductive.

    Posted February 4, 2014 at 12:51 pm | Permalink
  19. Kristophr says

    A self-hating emo-retard who takes a rifle into a theater and shoots up innocent people deserves nothing but contempt.

    A self-hating leftist with that far more dangerous weapon, a vote, needs to be thrown into a scorpion pit before he uses that vote to destroy many more lives with his pernicious cultural relativism.

    Socialists killed 120 million people last century. Do not hesitate to be brutal to them.

    Posted February 4, 2014 at 7:06 pm | Permalink
  20. disappointed says

    Hey, Eric, I didn’t grow up in poverty. Nothing so glamorous, just an ordinary household with sufficient money and lots of love.

    Kristophr, a single vote never killed anybody and if the people vote en mass, you have to ask why. Your last sentence is a complete nonsense.

    I live in Australia and most people do not own guns. I’m happy with that. When you advocate brutality, in such a casual way, you come over as a mad man. Sorry, but I feel pity for you.

    Posted February 5, 2014 at 5:13 am | Permalink
  21. Eric, Kristophr, et al.,

    Trying to have a discussion with a trolling leftist reminds me of something Thomas Sowell once said:

    “One of the best New Year’s resolutions I ever made … was to stop trying to reason with unreasonable people.”

    Posted February 5, 2014 at 1:40 pm | Permalink
  22. disappointed says

    The funny thing is, Henry, that I had come to the same conclusion. Malcolm wrote a piece a short time ago in which he lamented the fact that right wing conservatives were nearly always perceived to be bad people whereas the more left leaning were seen to be nicer people. This comments thread demonstrates that so well. You are arrogant Henry, no doubt about it, with zero respect for opinions that you don’t like.

    Of course, on this blog you are going to get wholehearted support because this is a place where you like-minded people gather to discuss your highfalutin ideas. Any dissent is met with sneering derision and suggestions that the detractor is somehow feeble-minded. I don’t like group-think but unfortunately all blogs seem to be about individuals coming together to share their very similar insights. Still, I don’t know that the left wing blogger would react so viciously to a difference of opinion.

    BTW I comment as ‘disappointed’ only to keep the comment connected with others I made on an earlier post. I don’t feel very welcome commenting here but if I do occasionally rise to the bait, it will be under the banner of ‘Amused’. Just to annoy you a little bit more.

    Malcolm, this is your blog and I do respect that you let comments through, even those of a troll with half a brain and no credibility!

    Posted February 6, 2014 at 2:04 am | Permalink
  23. Dear disappointed/Amused:

    I was being nice to you. If I hadn’t been, I would have told you in plain English what I thought of you. As for showing respect for a troll’s opinions, that’s actually funny; I do respect that.

    I seldom get wholehearted support on this blog. You must be thinking of some other blog, where you try to annoy under the banner of “Confused”.

    When reason fails, the only thing left is derision.

    Posted February 6, 2014 at 11:34 am | Permalink
  24. disappointed says

    Oh Henry! You were being nice? How deluded you are. You must have problems.

    I hit on this blog quite by accident, and to explain how would be a diversion. Suffice to say, I read Malcolm’s post in honour of his mother, and found it very eloquent and moving. I did not come here to cause trouble.

    I will not be commenting here frequently, precisely because I don’t like the invective that is the inevitable result of expressing an opinion that is at odds with most of you, who chip in around here.

    Derision, Sir, is your first response. I can feel the knee jerk from here. I am quite reasonable. I have you down as a professorial type, with a temper, who doesn’t appreciate being challenged and I really can’t be bothered. So, do carry on.

    Sorry Malcolm. I know where your sympathies lie and I will not be forever popping up, causing a problem. Chat amongst yourselves.

    Posted February 7, 2014 at 1:51 am | Permalink
  25. “I am quite reasonable. I have you down as a professorial type, with a temper, …”

    And I have you down as a perpetually perplexed undergraduate, with distemper …

    Posted February 7, 2014 at 12:50 pm | Permalink
  26. disappointed says

    Henry, something tells me that you have to have the last word. At least that insult was your own, rather than a ridiculous e.card or an obscure quotation. Not that I disagreed with it of course. It was apt.

    You know what, Henry, you old dog? I also like to have the last word and the only thing that will stop me carrying this nonsense further is the recognition that you do not own this blog, and neither do I.

    Posted February 7, 2014 at 10:43 pm | Permalink
  27. Malcolm says

    OK, I’ll have the last word.

    You kids settle down now. I’m turning out the light.

    Posted February 7, 2014 at 10:49 pm | Permalink