- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 30, 2007


By Brian C. Anderson

ISI Books, $25, 225 pages


“Discontents,” the man said. Well. Yes. Likely we’d all agree there’s some unhappiness out there with the existing political order, or, more precisely, with the functioning of that political order.

Federal jurists commit themselves to the task of writing laws but, on the other hand, mere day makers of laws — representatives and senators — seem unable to agree what laws they should be trying to make, much less what those laws (if they made them) ought to say and do. Meanwhile, Internet visitors have taken to commanding the commander in chief to do this and that in Iraq.

Brian C. Anderson, a senior editor of the Manhattan Institute’s influential City Journal, acknowledges the zaniness of the democratic condition — which really is a condition, a state of reduced health — without surrendering to despair or the understandable tempation to go on an extended fishing trip.

He gives us instead a bright, restless little book that illuminates the problem while pointing to resources, both intellectual and moral, capable of reviving the patient. Reviving, not curing. Reviving is the most for which a democratic capitalist is entitled to hope, such are the self-cancelling factors in the whole glorious, often-nutty persuasion.

Again and again the philosophical sources Mr. Anderson invokes (to which there is a pronounced French flavor) remind us how imperfect is the quest for peace in the city of man. Invoking the philosopher Francois Furet, who died in 1997, Mr. Anderson informs us soberly that “we must not expect too much from politics.” You have to have them; still, there’s a limit to the things for which you can count on them.

The nub of the present problem with democraitc capitalism, Mr. Anderson affirms, is liberalism of the sort that Alexis de Tocqueville foresaw nearly two centuries ago, with its “passion for equality” (Mr. Anderson’s words) trumping all other considerations. A Frenchman of the 21st century, Pierre Manent, argues that democracy isn’t up to the task of telling men and women who they are and how they should live.

Why wonder at that? The egalitarianism that Mr. Anderson sees, logically, as a leading feature of democracy seems these days absolutely to forbid closing off any human mode or method to trial or employment. Thus “liberal democratic societies will struggle with a generalized moral nihilism that is subversive of bourgeois order.”

The consequences of this default can be stunning. Part of the fun, if you call it fun, of walking through this tour of modern democratic liberalism is that of hooting, with Mr. Anderson, at the nonsense propounded by such as the late Harvard philosopher John Rawls, and, worse — far worse — Jean-Paul Sartre (“a paradigmatic example of the leftist mind, in all its dodgy enthusiasms”).

Much more to the author’s liking is “the melancholy liberalism” of Bertrand de Jouvenel, a balanced and realistic thinker who enjoined his readers not to hope too much from democracy and yet to value it for its contributions to prosperity and freedom.

The still-living Mr. Manent, whom Mr. Anderson allows to sum up, wishes democrats to love democracy “moderately.” Truth, the value of human life, the meaning of beauty — democracy has no calipers for judging of these matters. Following Mr. Manent, we democrats are to work for a sort of balance in life — no relativism, thanks, and at the same time no fatal attachment to “one experience or worldview as civically absolute.”

Mr. Manent favors also a genuine role for religion (he himself being that rare Frenchman, the practicing Catholic) and “a renewed commitment to classical education.” And yet — Mr. Anderson speaking — “There is no recipe or equation in all this. We need no ideologies, no programs.”

What? No recipe, no formula? The reader who has walked this agreeable but demanding distance with Mr. Anderson may fetch up here, just as the tutor is about to take off his hiking boots. No program? The reader is well advised at this point to draw a breath, then let it out slowly. Right — no program. That would be due, I think, to the perils and vexations that programs of one kind and another have brought to democratic capitalism from the start.

A loose, almost formless concept cries out (does it not?) to be taken and shaped by those who know themselves to be master shapers — the likes of Sartre with his atheism and rejection of meaning; Rawls with his egalitarian obsessions; the U.S. Supreme Court with its off-again, on-again commitment to overriding stodgy, purblind lawmakers by means of edicts carved from clouds and cotton candy.

One good reason, I suppose, for following the broad outlines of prescription — the Bible, the altar, the classics — is that the old and the ancient, atypically in a moden society, slow down the acceleration of the idea that proceeds from the cloistered brain, the idea with power to annihilate all in its path. When you get right down to it, human modesty is the property Mr. Anderson and his philosophers would like to see once more in general circulation. It would be a change — that’s for sure.

William Murchison is a columnist for Creators Syndicate.

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