A response to Tyler Cowen’s “Classical liberalism vs. The New Right”

I am a loyal reader of the economist Tyler Cowen’s blog Marginal Revolution, and so I was pleased to see Tyler lay out his thoughts on classical liberalism vs. the New Right in a recent post. However, I feel that he underrates the descriptive accuracy of the New Right’s criticisms, even though I largely agree with him from a prescriptive perspective.

Generally speaking, I sympathize with Tyler’s view. I would consider myself a classical liberal, and while I pay attention to some segments of the New Right, I would not say that I subscribe to a philosophy that anybody on the New Right would consider to be “one of their own.” There are elements of commonality, to be sure, but on the whole I am a fairly standard classical liberal who appreciates state capacity, social liberalism, and so on.

It is often unclear what the exact policy prescription of the New Right would be in any given circumstance. Part of this is because the New Right is a loose collection of many different people with quite a diverse range of political philosophies, but I suspect part of this is also because the New Right does not possess a coherent theory of governance. For all the writing that Curtis Yarvin has done ー and he has done a lot of it and made some very illuminating points ー at the end of the day, it remains somewhat unclear what, precisely, he is suggesting as a replacement for what we have today, or how we will actually get there. When Tyler criticizes the specific recommendations of the New Right, such as his skepticism about “how the New Right stance avoids the risks from an extremely corrupt and self-seeking power elite,” it is hard to deny that he has a point.

Yet I also feel that Tyler underrates certain aspects of the New Right. For me, I have found it very beneficial to read and understand the positions of the New Right, even if I have not fully adopted their modes of thought. In general, I have found the New Right to be illuminating in a descriptive fashion, even if not so useful in a prescriptive way.

Tyler diagnoses the main difference between classical liberals and the New Right as one of degree, namely, the extent to which they trust elites. Writing in support of classical liberalism, Tyler supplies a variety of examples suggesting that American governance has succeeded over the last several decades:

The New Right (and the classical liberals I might add) also seem to neglect the many cases where American governance has improved over time. My DMV really is many times better than it was thirty years ago. New York City is currently seeing some trying times, due to the pandemic aftermath, but the city is significant better run today than it was in the 1970s. Social Security, for all of its flaws, remains one of the world’s better-functioning retirement systems. The weapons the U.S. military is supplying to Ukraine seem remarkably effective. The Fed and Treasury, for all their initial oversights, did forestall a great depression in 2008-2009. Operation Warp Speed was a major success and saved millions of lives.

I agree that America is not yet done for! But I cannot help but wonder how much of this can be attributed to the lingering vestiges of American dominance in the 20th century over Europe and Asia. When the rest of the world is blown to smithereens and you take in a large number of smart migrants, the resulting benefits can plausibly last for many decades. However, my fear is that there is a fundamental rot in American governance (which the New Right is fairly good at diagnosing) that we are “papering over” with the riches of the previous century.

Just today, Tyler posted a “San Francisco fact of the day,” linking an article about how city officials are celebrating a successful request for funding to the tune of $1.7 million dollars to build a new public toilet in Noe Valley Town Square. In general, Americans are very rich, and so if you tax them enough, you can accomplish a fair amount in absolute terms! Weapons can be built, public toilets can be constructed, and DMV infrastructure can be improved, so long as you throw increasing amounts of money at the problem. However, if you believe, as the New Right does, that the intrinsic quality of our governance is rapidly degrading, this will of course not last ー at some point, the costs to the populace will be too large and the corresponding benefits too small. (Some would probably argue we are already well past that point!)

Similarly, with regard to the dominance of “wokeness” in American society, Tyler points out that many metrics of wokeness seem to have already peaked:

The New Right also overrates the collusive nature of mainstream elites. Many New Right adherents see a world ever more dominated by “The Woke.” In contrast, I see an America where Virginia elected a Republican governor, Louis C.K. won a 2022 Grammy award on a secret ballot and some trans issues are falling in popularity. Wokism likely has peaked. Similarly, the New Right places great stress on corruption and groupthink in American universities. I don’t like the status quo either, but I also see a world where the most left-wing majors – humanities majors – are losing enrollments and influence. Furthermore, the internet is gaining in intellectual influence, relative to university professors.

These are good observations, and I myself feel that wokeness is becoming less pervasive in day-to-day life. However, even though it is less popular to enroll in a humanities degree, it remains true that humanities degrees are effectively prerequisites to obtaining influential posts in government administrations. For example, education degrees seem important for moving up the ranks in the administrative complex of public education, even though in wider society the prestige of an education degree is quite low. These degrees are well-known to promulgate extremely woke ideas and ineffective methodologies (for example, the notion of “whole language” instruction).

Even in the sciences, wokeness seems to have taken root in the highest echelons. For example, Nature Human Behavior published an editorial calling for additional scrutiny for research that categorizes humans by “race, ethnicity, national or social origin, sex,” etc. It is plausible that such standards, if implemented, will serve as a pretext for selectively blocking research with politically uncomfortable conclusions. Similarly, Nature recently published a comment on the “misinterpretation” of genomics research by right-wing groups, suggesting that authors should go to extreme pains to ensure that their work is not “misused.” Again, it is quite plausible that such a policy would be selectively applied to stifle certain types of research, so long as their methods or findings do not fit well within the dominant political paradigm of the academy.

What I am trying to say is that while wokeness has failed to captivate the public consciousness as much as its proponents would like or as much as its detractors imagine, it remains unclear to me that wokism has in fact peaked when you look at the highest ranks of society. In the long run, if the promulgators of modern culture are ideologically captured, that will inevitably trickle down to the general population, even if the general population cannot be immediately convinced of the merits of these positions. Sometimes, this phenomenon is good, such as in the case of sexual or racial equality, but it is not hard to imagine that this phenomenon could also be quite bad. Suppose that America benefited tremendously from the elite dissemination of classical liberal values over the last 2 centuries; is it so much of a stretch to say that we are in for a rough couple of decades because the values that elites are disseminating are now no longer so productive?

In sum, I would say that I have found the ideology of the New Right useful largely in orienting me toward the obvious failures of American elites and American governance, and less useful in telling me how I should act to fix these problems. To be sure, I agree with Tyler when he writes:

Finally, I worry about excess negativism in New Right thinking. Negative thoughts tend to breed further negative thoughts. If the choice is a bit of naivete and excess optimism, or excess pessimism, I for one will opt for the former.

I am an optimistic person in general, and if I were a government official, I would try even harder to have an optimistic worldview. Similarly, I hope that my government officials are optimistic rather than pessimistic, and I am not so much a fan of electing people from the New Right purely because of the pessimistic view they express. Optimism is conducive to creation and improvement; pessimism, generally less so.

However, from a personal perspective, when I consider where I should financially place my bets, where I should live now, or where I might end up living several decades in the future, the pessimism of the New Right is quite useful! It helps me avoid seeing my own country through rose-tinted glasses and make a more realistic appraisal of the world as it stands and its prospects in the next several years. While I am not sure that I would support tearing down the entire edifice of the American bureaucracy wholesale, terrifying and bloated as it is, the New Right has nevertheless made some very important contributions to my worldview. I worry that Tyler overrates the ability of American institutions to escape the traps into which it has fallen ー traps that the New Right has managed to identify with great prescience.

October 20th, 2022 | Posted in Society

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