One of the striking tendencies of anti-liberalism, particularly on the right, is a sort of nostalgia for ways of life which were cruder yet, according to the anti-liberals, more dignified. By way of example here is Declan Leary in National Review defending Marco Rubio against critics of his neo-populist speech at Catholic University. He writes:
The alienation of labor from production — of work from the act of creation, and of the worker from the world he’s meant to mold — is exactly what Rubio is talking about when he observes that so many Americans struggle to find dignity and fulfillment in the current market. It is perfectly plausible that the manual farmer tilling the land in 1907, whom Harsanyi so pities, found more dignity in the work than does a modern laborer overseeing the mechanical processes of near-automated farming.
Kevin Williamson does a good job of dispatching this argument.
Is it perfectly plausible? I wonder if Declan ever has thought to ask a farmer about that. I have.
One of the few truly general laws of human behavior is that subsistence farmers given the choice will choose almost any other occupation. The farmers were not driven off their land in the United States. They left as quickly as they could. They have done the same in India, China, Mexico, and practically every other place in the world in which economic development liberated people from the privation and misery of low-capital farming. My parents and grandparents picked cotton, and I can inform you that “dignity” was not among their leading motivations — desperation and the specter of hunger were.
On the other hand, a modern farmer harvesting cotton with modern equipment can make well over $100,000 a year, and enjoys the dignity of being far, far removed from dirt floors and outdoor plumbing.
I’ve seen anti-liberals elsewhere downplay the superiority of modern material conditions. They view it as something like a form of Marxism to note that life is by every material measure better. Ah, say the critics, but what of the alienation people feel in today’s modern world (thus oddly employing a bit of Marxian rhetoric)? To be sure, there are reasons to be concerned about modern life and some of the new challenges our internet-heavy way of life presents to us. Right now I’m reading Ben Sasse’s Them, and he makes a compelling argument that loneliness is literally killing us. Tim Carney presents a similar case in Alienated America, and there are a number of other works of a similar nature that make similar arguments.
But for reasons I will get to in another post shortly, liberalism doesn’t account for these factors because it cannot, and it cannot because it is a philosophy of government and political economics, not of life. But even on a philosophical level I find the attitude of Leary and others who share his beliefs somewhat troubling.
Admittedly I have my own built in biases. Without getting too personal, I see the miracles modern technology have wrought and I thank God, quite literally, for these advances. Romantic notions of what life was like a century ago ignore the harsh realities of what daily life was truly like not all that long ago. It is trite to detail the ways in which middle class people in America – and frankly most poor people – live as compared to kings of yesteryear, but it’s also undeniably true.
To take it a little bit closer to my professional life, look at what is happening in the Navajo nation. There are still thousands of families who live without electricity. Recently there has been a concerted effort to “Light Up Navajo,” and this has electrified hundreds of homes in the Navajo nation, located in the southwestern portion of the United States. There are videos documenting the reactions of families who finally get electricity. Their emotional reaction shows you how much having their homes electrified means to them. No more shuttling to the convenience store every day to buy food, for starters.
And yet this is how we all lived more than a century ago.
Think of all the other advances, some which we take for granted and others which are truly monumental. For example, a deaf child no longer has to live without hearing thanks to cochlear implants. A person with a congenital heart condition can have surgery to fix valve issues without even having to spend the night in the hospital because the surgery is now so much less invasive – to say nothing of there even being a surgical procedure to fix said valve. And there are other examples I’m sure you can all think of.
Would these advances have been possible outside of a liberal order? Doubtful. A command economy can produce useful goods, to be sure. You can no doubt point to some amazing technological advances wrought by the space program, for example. But even those advances can be seen as the fruits of competition. Granted this competition was between governments, but nonetheless it was a form of competition that spurred our government to innovate. I find it highly doubtful that we would have achieved as much as we have if we did lived in something other than a classically liberal economic structure. Our lives would be materially worse, and I’m not sure what kind of dignity is supposed to inhere in a life of greater toil and uncertainty.