Does reality change ideas, or vice versa?
he intellectual right is in the middle of a huge brouhaha, as some prominent right-wing commentators celebrate what they believe is the end of the “conservative consensus” around classical liberalism — free markets, limited government, the sovereignty of the individual and even in some cases free expression. Fox News’ Tucker Carlson recently lauded progressive Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s economic program, to the cheers of a host of conservatives who now consider themselves advocates for something called “economic nationalism.”
While I’m friends with many of these people, including Carlson, and respect many of the others (though certainly not all), I think this is barmy codswallop.
But as I’ve written a great deal about the singular necessity of free markets, limited government and classical liberalism — recently at book length — I feel like coming at this from a different direction. This argument really isn’t new, and there’s no reason to think it’s going away anytime soon, particularly so long as Donald Trump is in office and conservative intellectuals feel the need to bend their ideas to his actions or exploit his popularity (on the right) for the ideas they’ve long held.
Instead, it’s worth thinking about how to think about such things.
It’s axiomatic that intellectuals like to deal with ideas. Ideas are to the intellectual what paint is to the painter and stone is to the mason. And ideas are supremely important. As the late Irving Kristol said, “What rules the world is ideas, because ideas define the way reality is perceived.”
I believe that. But reality — i.e., the physical realm we live in — is often what brings new ideas to the fore. We certainly understand this in the world of science. Newton, Einstein and Edison had ideas, and those ideas changed reality in ways that changed our ideas.
Ever since the word “conservative” has had any meaning, conservatives have complained about moral licentiousness. Where they once complained about rising hemlines, they now complain about widespread pornography or celebrity sex tapes. As a conservative myself, I share some of those complaints. But what’s often left out of the conversation is the role technology plays in changing how we think about such things.
In the 1920s, conservatives complained about foreign ideas corrupting the youth, as if licentiousness was some virus that escaped a lab in Paris and was brought home by returning soldiers. Left out of the conversation, for the most part, was the fact that one the great drivers of the rise in out-of-wedlock births (and shotgun weddings) in the 1920s was the widespread introduction of the automobile. Suddenly, teenagers had a much easier time escaping the prying eyes of parents and neighbors.
I have no objection to the claim that ideas played an important role in changing attitudes about sex. The problem is when you think the idea is the sum of the problem. Intellectuals tend to think this way because it’s fun to argue with Voltaire or Simone de Beaviour. It’s more difficult to argue with a Buick. These intellectuals become like the drunk who only looks for his lost car keys under the street lamp because the light is better there.
The birth control pill has surely done more to create a culture of recreational sex than all of the writings of Alfred Kinsey and feminist intellectuals combined. Good luck trying to get rid of the pill.
Of course, this isn’t just a dynamic on the right. One of the vexing problems for supporters of unalloyed abortion rights is that technology — from in-utero MRI to miraculous innovations in neonatal care — is making the claim that late-stage fetuses are merely “uterine contents” or some other dehumanizing euphemism less plausible to millions of Americans.
Many of the promoters of “economic nationalism” on the left and right, including Trump, cling to outdated ideas about how industry works. Manufacturing in the United States isn’t in decline; manufacturing jobs are, because technology replaces human labor with machine labor. Even if tariffs brought our factories home from Mexico and China (a dubious proposition), most of the jobs “brought back” will go to machines. Raising the minimum wage certainly helps some workers, but it also encourages employers to replace other workers with automation and other technologies.
Among the myriad dangers in all of this is that intellectuals think they can somehow plan and direct the consequences of technological innovation to achieve a society that fits their theories about how everyone should live. That’s not easy in an authoritarian society. It’s not possible in a free one.