What is your view of how society works? It matters. You have to decide.
You might notice that your view on the question depends on the setting. If you go to the mall, the local bar, a bustling restaurant, a neighborhood cookout, a house of worship, a movie theater, a concert, or even a sports event, you will see signs of blessed harmony.
The larger the state grows, the more it invades the peaceful areas of our lives. Here, for the most part, people get along. No one is gouging each other’s eyes out or calling people enemies of the nation or race. Strangers find ways to cooperate. You are served in a friendly way by people you don’t know, even people from all over the world. The food you eat, the drinks you drink, the clothes you wear are all produced for you by people you have never met. They are strangers, yet they work for you and you work for them.
No one in riot gear is needed to prevent violence and chaos. Somehow everyone manages to find ways to value each other and respect each other’s rights. People are smiling. For the most part, people are polite to each other. There is rarely evidence of invidious discrimination or fundamental acrimony.
The Struggle Is Real
On the other hand, perhaps you attended a political event this year, where you see something very different. Or maybe you argued politics with a family member or a friend. Or maybe you read the papers or dig around social media. Here is where you see evidence of what David Brooks writes about in the New York Times:
“Sociologically, this campaign has been an education in how societies come apart. The Trump campaign has been like a flash flood that sweeps away the topsoil and both reveals and widens the chasms, crevices and cracks below. We are a far more divided society than we realized.”
Or we might look at it another way. Perhaps politics is not revealing but actually exacerbating or even creating chasms. You create a huge state and invite people to struggle for control over it. You extract trillions in revenue and have a contest for who gets the cash and on what terms. You create a gigantic regulatory machine that micromanages lives and suggest some use it against others, depending on their preferences. You create a war machine and look around for ways to use it.
That seems like a great plan to divide society. When the horror show ends, you announce that everyone should be happy with the results because, after all, we are at least united in love of the process itself.
And this is the way it is supposed to work in modern America. The Saturday Night Live spoof of the final Clinton-Trump debate, the actors playing the candidates embrace each other, reach out to disaffected voters, unite everyone in a circle, and agree at the end that it’s all about participation in the election as its own reward. All the acrimony and division, we are encouraged to believe, is just part of the process, and this process always ends well: united in conviction that, for all the problems, we are doing it the right way.
It creates division where none should exist and then proposes more of itself in order to fix the problems it creates. Seems like wishful thinking this time. This was not a normal election cycle, and the wishes for the country as pushed by the candidates were deeply harmful to anything like community feeling. We’ve lost friends. We’ve been horrified about the strange opinions of family members and neighbors. We are probably unhappy about the outcome and live with a certain fear that the other tribe will pillage us and lord it over us in ways that are designed to ruin everything we love.
When you build a gigantic state, and invite factions to struggle to battle it in real-life “Hunger Games,” there are going to be problems. One group wins and one group loses. Despite the election outcome, resentments persist. Acts of vengeance are already in the making.
And yet, let’s keep something important in mind. All this division is pretty much limited to politics.
This Is Not Togetherness
A few years ago, it became fashionable for defenders of a gigantic and intrusive state to say, with Barney Frank, that “Government is simply a word for the things we decide to do together.”
Nonsense. Government is simply a word for a thing that tears us apart. It fosters – nay, lives on – hate and the longing for the destruction of people with whom you disagree. If you support the politics of state intrusion into people’s lives, you are contributing to the problem. And it is a serious problem.
The larger the state grows, the more it invades the peaceful areas of our lives. It creates division where none should exist and then proposes more of itself in order to fix the problems it creates.
Harmony or Conflict?
Philosophers from the late Middle Ages on observed the beauty of society unencumbered by political struggles and came up with a theory about it. That theory was known as liberalism: people can work together toward the good if they are given freedom and their rights are respected. For centuries, great thinkers (Hume, Locke, Smith, Paine, Jefferson, Kant, Goethe, Thoreau, Mises, Hayek) celebrated the cause. It is a philosophical position that longs for peace, prosperity, and dignity for all.
The choice you make not only identifies your ideological loyalties; it contributes to the kind of society in which we will live in the future. In recent days, this site has published two extraordinary articles on 20th-century minds dedicated to the anti-liberal cause. The first on Martin Heidegger reveals him as a proponent of collectivism and an enemy of individualism. The second on Carl Schmitt shows him as a proponent of conflict and an enemy of harmony.
As our tour guide Tom Palmer writes, Schmitt regarded the harmony we see in a normal lives as “a world of unseriousness, of mere entertainment.” Far better are “struggles, conflicts, wars, great causes pitting titanic forces against each other; all worthier, higher, and nobler than the life of entertainment, business, trade, family, and love, all of which were unserious compared to the political.”
Their ideas created the mess we’ve seen on display this year in American politics, and not by accident. The conflict that is so much in evidence is something longed for by philosophers who find our bars, shopping centers, and neighborhood cookouts – the bourgeois life in general – as terribly tedious and pointless. What they find meaningful are cold and hot wars, both domestically and internationally, in which individuals become part of great collectives – defined by class, income, race, intelligence, religion, ability, gender – that move history in the right direction.
You Can Choose
So in our times, you live in two worlds, one of conflict and one of harmony. Which do you believe in? Which do you long for?
Do you embrace and celebrate the harmony of interests that is in evidence in our everyday lives? Or do you long for the conflict we’ve seen on display in the great political struggles of our times?
The choice you make not only identifies your ideological loyalties; it contributes to the kind of society in which we will live in the future. If you choose harmony over conflict, there is no getting around the problem that politics has created. Something has to give. The institution that is causing the chasms, crevices, and cranks must recede and the institutions of liberty that permit us to build a more harmonious world must rise to take its place.