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icarusDr. Kirk wrote in Prospects for Conservatives: “…the conservative believes that men and nations possess free will, and that if a nation or a civilization tumbles to its ruin, such catastrophe is the consequence, for the most part, of the failure of heart and mind of the people who made up that nation…”

Years ago, an elderly British civil engineer sat at the bar in Peshawar, Pakistan, near the foothills of the Khyber Pass, and I have no idea if what he told me was true.

At the end of the 19th Century, he said, when the Germans invented the diesel engine, the weakest part was the governor and when it broke the engine ran ever faster until it exploded, injuring or even killing the driver. The metallurgists lacked the technology to strengthen the governor, so the mechanical engineers were made to design structural flaws into the engine block in order to, after the governor malfunctioned, make it crack and release the surplus energy safely. This irritated the mechanical engineers grievously, upsetting their German traditions of perfectionism and their justifiable professional pride. They complained that, were there any justice in this world, the metallurgists would be made to overcome their failure ruthlessly in order to spare the mechanical engineers the indignity of building intentional flaws into their near-perfect portion of the device.

When people wonder how to restore communities and renew values, is it possible that hyper-efficient economics and technology lead inexorably to social explosion? Are we as the lab rats that kept pressing the apparatus, sending electric shocks into the pleasure centres of their brains until they neglected to even eat or sleep? Have we a broken governor and no flaw built into the social engine block, as our own mounting economic bounty entices us to destroy our societies and then ourselves

This broad question seems to have bothered Lee Kuan Yew, the father of modern Singapore. Originally a firebrand nationalist, by the late 1960s or the 1970s, the British-educated barrister emerged as a Confucian patriarch. Mr. Lee knew that consumer choice, economic liberty, free trade and limited government intervention could turn Singapore, as it did, from an island parking-lot devastated by the Japanese occupation into an engine of prosperity that continues to inspire much of the world. He also appears to have seen the rising decadence of the already-wealthy West. This must have been upsetting to a good Confucian protective of public order upheld by traditional values, conveyed and preserved by strong families, communities and the state.

Mr. Lee seems to have feared what he saw throughout Europe and America, countries ahead of Singapore economically but all on the same path. I am unaware of Mr. Lee stating this in speeches or articles, but his policies speak volumes.

From the 1970s onwards, his Singapore government tried to slow the socially destructive process by which wealth increases individual choice, then individuals pursue happiness at the expense of traditional institutions which often curtailed individual choice. Why be forced into Dad’s small business when one has a wide selection of jobs? Why must a young Singaporean-Chinese professional live in a traditional, multi-generational, Chinese family home – and suffer the unwelcome advice of one’s parents not to mention Grandma, her smelly joss-sticks and her garish little temple at the head of the stairs – when the alternative is one’s own car, apartment and privacy? Why save when one can spend, or even borrow to spend (a lesson the West now learns to it chagrin)? Why even marry, essentially buying a cow when milk is free?

Mr. Lee’s government tried everything it could to stop or slow what looked like an inevitable slide from socioeconomic choice to wealth to individualism, from self-centredness to selfishness, from social fragmentation to decadence and moral decline. People were required to save a certain percentage of income, which helped to keep the young at home and may have saved others from needing charity later. Public gum-chewing was prosecuted. Vandals were sentenced to corporal punishment. The welfare state was kept minuscule intentionally, hoping to avoid disincentives to move away from home, to work, save, marry and thus by necessity to retain the financial support and moral pressures of large, extended families.

To help ensure that educated young women married and reproduced (they often did not, for supposedly men marry downstream socially and educationally while women rarely do), the government sponsored ‘mixers’ for educated, single, civil servants ranging from cocktails at the country-club to weekend cruises. When, twenty years ago, this writer asked some Singaporean civil-servant girls whether they thought that they might meet a husband on such cruises, they erupted into bashful giggles and said surely not – for a young woman to even turn up on one’s own suggested that she was desperate to find a husband or boyfriend, a social kiss of death, so from start to finish they attended these mixers in clutches of girlfriends.

Then or now, Singapore is hardly Sodom or Gomorrah, but life continues to become more as it is in the West, heading in the direction feared by Mr. Lee. Dwelling in big houses among three generations has become more rare, mores have loosened at least among young people, and I suspect that the young are less thrifty than their parsimonious parents. At best his social policies seem to have slowed the inevitable, while at worst they accomplished little at all.

For Singapore and the West, the roots of social fragmentation may reside in both technology and economics. Our hunt for pleasure finances innovation that in turn offers more temptation, and if one thinks like Mr. Lee then the spiral is at once both virtuous and vicious, driving up Gross Domestic Product while simultaneously driving down social cohesion and traditional values.

The fundamentally Kirkian problem of moral renewal may sit uncomfortably beside what may seem to be this Hegelian (or even Leninist) historicism implying the inevitability of decline. If capitalists are given enough rope, are they really quite certain to hang themselves? Poverty and primitive technology, preserved by economic inefficiency, may have been the governor that slowed the engine of free will by constricting an individual’s opportunity to make so many self-destructive and socially-destructive choices.

The fairly recent technology of convenient birth-control tablets removed a major incentive for unmarried women to remain chaste, reducing the need for marriage. Microwave ovens, washer-dryers and permanent-press clothing removed another serious incentive to marry or to remain married – within living memory it was once nearly a full-time job keeping even two people fed and dressed. Improved transport and communication technology mean that a company that was once wise to exist within a single town (e.g., making chocolate in Hershey, PA, or making cars in Detroit) could spread across the nation or the globe cutting costs but encouraging economic nomadism among its better employees while turning many cities and suburbs into temporary accommodation devoid of community.

Technological advantages and economic opportunity can account for much of why we choose to no longer live as our grandparents did at home or at work, or in communities that we find too expensive or time-consuming to maintain. Every small, Midwestern town’s grand, 19th Century, Masonic or Moose Lodge is now a bank or a franchised coffee shop. We work so much longer now – in return for once-unaffordable holidays and a home crammed with obsolete gadgets that once gave us pleasure – that fraternal, professional and social societies that still thrived in 1970 are gone from small towns, or are nearly moribund. Many Americans do not know their neighbours. As the book-title suggests, we are bowling alone.

Yes, there are mitigating factors such as public policy. Yes, welfare projects have created malign incentives that help to destroy poor families. And yes, the sheer size and cost of the behemoth state often require both parents to work when, even fifty years back, only one wage-earner was required. But it seems unrealistic to blame it all on politicians and to think that the cure is more politics pandering to our individualistic dreams.

Thanks to near-limitless choice generating wealth with ever-increasing efficiency, we choose what behaviour and what products please us best, regardless of the effect upon institutions that evolved to benefit the civilisation as a whole – and not to ensure that each of us lives as he wishes. We may have removed the buttresses to tradition.

If this grim hypothesis is true, then there may be no light at the end of the tunnel because we are not in a tunnel at all, but rather in a tomb that we dug ourselves and one that has no second exit until the Second Coming.

As Dr. Kirk reminded us, we have been given free will but our powers of observation tell us what most people will choose most of the time when they are no longer constrained by family and community. Yes, in principle we could use our free will to trade off some of our happiness and wealth and self-satisfaction for (an increasingly unrecognised) common good – but our consumerite Brave New World undermines the very institutions that once encouraged or coerced us into forming communities of traditions and shared values. We may have burnt our bridges. Perhaps we can’t go home again.

Getting people to stay at home and live in big families and small towns is hard to imagine, as is going to the same church instead of endlessly ‘shopping around for a better religious deal,’ or granting more social power to our old kinfolk when we can abandon them when we reach age 20, write checks to the nursing home at age 50, and when we reach 60 phone in a credit card number, long-distance, to pay the crematorium bill.

If we retreated into a gentler, small-town past, with all its soft joys and hard responsibilities, where would we work? The small businesses of two generations ago are long dead, replaced by lower-cost, higher-efficiency, consumer-friendly, multinational franchises in vast shopping malls ten miles up the interstate. Can we all sell one another plastic food and disposable designer clothing and do it at minimum wage? The alternative is to kiss everyone farewell and head for the big city, never to return.

When Dr. Kirk gave, as often he did, historical examples of civilisations turning back from the abyss, those people had functional governors bolted to their age-old social engines. By economic and technological necessity, not by individual choice, they all lived in big families and small towns or villages, they went to one or two denominations of churches and no more, their children read the same few books and grew up with attitudes and values that were largely shared. They lived in communities, much as they had to since the Upper Paleolithic Era. Indeed, communities could be intolerant but, tough as that might have been on some individuals, it ensured consistency and continuity.

Virtually none of that survives today. Around a third of British families lack both a kitchen table and a dining table, so on the rare occasions that they eat together at home it must be in front of the television set. American families, richer and thus presumably more atomised than the British, supposedly watch separate televisions in separate rooms and must meet one another to discuss values only when they collide at the refrigerator during televised commercial breaks.

Since an American child is said to have watched 18,000 dramatised murders on television by the time that he turns 18, and spent little time learning from parents and elder siblings at mealtimes how to react to unfairness or disrespect, this writer is surprised that even more of them do not shoot up their high schools and gun down their classmates – how else have they been taught to react? How many American parents will, Kirk-like, banish the idiot-box? If British parents discover lost backbone and declare that the family will take breakfasts and suppers together, where will they even sit?

Relying upon individual choice to put Humpty-Dumpty together again does not look very promising.

It is possible that Divine Providence may force us to do what we would not choose otherwise. Economic collapse, on a vast scale that seems all too possible, might force us to stay where we are and set us to growing vegetables in kitchen gardens when we would have been taking our next three posh holidays. The ensuing collapse of state-funded social services for the poor, which never worked well anyway, might force us to spend time among our respective town’s or city’s fatherless, leaderless ‘underprivileged’ instead of waiting in vain for bureaucrats to save lives with chequebooks. That never worked, and what does work is people with values putting enormous effort into the street children, ex-cons and serially unwed mothers who all need values. But what great, unfathomable power could force enough of us to make such sacrifices?

In the aftermath of economic collapse, most of us would find such change tantamount to turning the telescope around, looking for the first time through the big end and seeing everything in miniature forever after. Even if small is what matters, the effects on our lives would be hard to fathom now but surely traumatic.

The fundamentally Kirkian problem of moral renewal may sit uncomfortably beside this piece of what seems to be Hegelian (or even Leninist) historicism implying the inevitability of decline. If capitalists are given enough rope, are they really quite certain to hang themselves and everyone else? Is there an Iron Dialectic and, if so, are its daemon-drivers technology and choice?

Yet relative poverty, driven by economic inefficiency, may have been the governor that slowed the engine of material progress by constricting our opportunities to make so many self-destructive and socially-destructive choices, locking us into families and communities and their values like it or not.

Incrementally, could a socioeconomic governor be built again and would it be planned inefficiency? Could economic inefficiency, limiting choice and growth, be the flaw built intentionally into civilisation’s engine block drawing off enough pressure to avert explosion? To change metaphors, could it limit the altitude and keep Icarus from flying too near to the sun?

Such systems existed in the West and exit still in other lands, usually by accident rather than by design. In much of the world beyond the West, there remain plenty of practical reasons for an individual to live within the constrictions of an extended family even ignoring greater social pressures from, say, various governments or religions.

This writer is no historian, but within the past century Europe had monarchies that permitted high civilisation to thrive, at least among porous elites, and yet lived with slow growth and stability due to a lack of democratic pandering for progress plus rampant nepotism, plodding bureaucracy and middling levels of corruption less than in, say, Abuja but probably no more than in modern-day Chicago. The Habsburg Empire had Bulgaria, where many were dressed in animal skins in 1910 and later, but it also had Vienna.

This must be anathema to modern American individualists, imbued with their Utilitarian value of ostensibly offering the greatest good to the greatest number. Using inefficiency to stall growth and constrict individual opportunity intentionally would, one thinks, be as offensive today as it was to Woodrow Wilson, when he shattered continental Europe’s Old Orders to replace them with what he hoped would be little American democracies and fledgling socioeconomic dynamos humming faster and faster like so many diesel engines.

Those benign Old Orders were not preserved by inefficiency alone – plenty of Third World hellholes have all the inefficiency that one could ever imagine. The European Old Orders had slow, out of touch leaders but who held unshakable values that limited abuse and permitted individual liberties unless they threatened to dissolve the social glue that held their realms together. One need not visit the Habsburg crypts in Vienna to see the Christian iconography as mute testimony to what formed many of their values.

So even were we to give up our Gadarening self-centredness, or be forced to give it up, and were we to descend into relative inefficiency by design or by accident, it is far from certain that the New Order would be run by those who, despite their own individual and systemic failings, were aware of the permanent things – and were thus competent enough to lead incompetently.

Books on the people and topics discussed in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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3 replies to this post
  1. Steve, This is indeed the contemporary dilemma. My grandfather Jim Fuller would not move from his mother's house with his new bride until he had the whole $3000 it took him to build the home they then lived in for 63 years. That was a hundred years ago. My long-time next door neighbor George O'Meara would not marry until he could afford to buy outright the $6000 house he lived in for fifty years, supported by the family business his father and uncle had started. That was 75 years ago. My dad paid cash (out of poker winnings during WWII), $12,500, for a large home and country doctor's office. He died young, or he would still be there. That was a little over 50 years ago. In the time since then we have become quite rootless, to the point where the Roots of American Order is a concept our young people either sigh for or cannot comprehend. So many think that the hedonistic anonimity of the shopping mall is civilization, and that individual expression consists of the self-mutilation of tatoos and body piercings. Don't you think, given the failure of even Mr. Lee's good intentions, that the problem is really spiritual?

  2. This is one of the most exceptional articles I have ever read.

    Classic Austrian economists like Hans Hoppe, Thomas Woods and Robert Patrick Murphy all argue that a free market is the best way to go to maintain strong families and communities. They fail to recognise that only in an economy where resources are reasonably abundant does this seem remotely possible.

    The critical issue is that industrialisation creates a situation whereby those nations which are most resource-rich and had the strongest communities become – quite precisely – the most resource-poor, self-centred, and with the weakest communities.

    This is because in a pre-industrial society the most resource-rich nations are those with the most fertile soils, which means those where mountain-building and glaciation have been creating new soils over the past thirty-five million years or so. In an industrial economy, however, the most resource-rich nations are those with the greatest abundance of metallic minerals and flat, ice- and permafrost-free land where agriculture can be carried out with much greater labour efficiency than it could be before industrialisation.

    As it turns out, having fertile soils practically ensures a country will become nihilistic and self-centred in an industrial globe. The very factors that make fertile soil destroy the major metallic minerals – iron, aluminium, manganese, titanium, even precious metals like gold and platinum – and create land that is expensive to farm. The result that it is only in regions with soils too poor for farming to have deep roots – Australia and (most of) sub-Saharan Africa – that community is even possible in an industrial society. In a free market, economic growth and social instability is transferred further to industrially resource-poor nations, which makes them relatively richer but leads them down a destructive long-term path, especially demographically.

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