When explaining modern American conservatism to students, both young and not-so-young, I mix my methods. There are tables and charts. There are lengthy readings from ancient, medieval, and modern thinkers. There are philosophical arguments. And there are stories, lots of stories — comedies, tragedies, analogies, and parables.
Among the latter, a favorite of mine is Chesterton’s Fence. The British writer G.K. Chesterton introduced it in his 1929 book The Thing. An illustration of the critical importance of tacit knowledge, the parable began with Chesterton imagining a fence or gate across a road.
“The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, ‘I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away,’” Chesterton wrote. “To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: ‘If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.’”
Notice that Chesterton didn’t say the fence — representing social institutions, traditional ways of doing things — shouldn’t be removed. Both characters in the parable are “reformers.” Rather, Chesterton’s point was that institutions and traditions have histories. Over the course of time, many people apparently thought them useful or valuable.
These people could be mistaken, of course. Human beings are fallible. But the fallibility principle applies to past, present, and future humans. Forcibly changing things without fully understanding origins, complexities, and consequences can produce disaster.
In his new book Suicide of the West, Jonah Goldberg explores this thesis with wit, wisdom, and an infectious dose of intellectual curiosity. From his posts at the American Enterprise Institute, National Review, the Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere, Goldberg has become a leading voice in American conservatism — or perhaps “voices” is the better term, as he sometimes plays the wry observer, sometimes the moral conscience, and sometimes the class clown.
As it happens, Goldberg mixes his methods, too. He supplies plenty of empirical data and philosophical reasoning in support of his timely argument that the great economic, social, and political blessings of the Enlightenment are imperiled by the persistence of cognitive biases, tribal identities, and the emotionally gratifying but practically foolish schemes of progressives and populists.
Still, Goldberg knows that human beings are chiefly a storytelling species. We aren’t walking encyclopedias or abacuses. Indeed, he follows the lead of Israeli historian Yuval Harrari in saying that “virtually all of civilization … should really be seen as nothing more than a collection of stories we tell ourselves.”
Such stories of civilization aren’t simply pleasant (or unpleasant) fictions. They are relational, foundational, and form the first step in the journey to truth. They bind communities together. They defend necessary social institutions against corruption by our own primal natures.
I can’t do justice to Jonah Goldberg’s extensive argument, which ranges from anthropology studies, John Locke’s politics, and Joseph Schumpeter’s economics to Brave New World, Breaking Bad, and Game of Thrones. But I can pass along one of his parables.
Goldberg posits that the Enlightenment-era classical liberalism that produce “the Miracle” — the unprecedented surge in human wellbeing of the past two centuries — is both indispensable and artificial. “Imagine a brand-new car in a field,” Goldberg writes. “Left untouched for a decade or two, it will still be the same car.” But it will show signs of corrosion and decay. A century later, “a passerby will find a shell and some relics.” After a thousand years, “it may be like there was never a car there at all.” Constitutional government, free enterprise, the voluntary associations that form civil society — they are just as subject to corrosion and decay.
“Nature takes back everything,” Goldberg later warns, “unless you fight it off with every pitchfork at your disposal.” After reading Suicide of the West, you may well grab the nearest farming implement and join us. I’ll be the one holding the ax.