January 30, 2006


The Surprise of History (Lee Harris, 30 Jan 2006, Tech Central Station)

[H]egel is arguing that as long as America still had a virtually unlimited frontier it would remain a land of opportunity, a place where those who were not content with their lot in life could simply pick up and move on to virgin soil, creating for themselves a new life that was almost entirely of their own making -- which, of course, is exactly what many Americans were doing when Hegel wrote his lecture, and would continue to do for a long time after his death.

Because America had this convenient remedy for those who were dissatisfied with the status quo, there was no danger that those who were deeply dissatisfied with their position in the world would pose a political threat to the stability of the social order. Instead of rebelling against the status quo, they simply left it behind and went in search of a better life for themselves in the frontier -- potential rebels became pioneers. “If the ancient forests of Germany still existed, the French Revolution would never have occurred. North America will be comparable with Europe only after the measureless space which this country affords is filled and its civil society begins to press in on itself.”

Hegel’s conclusion? “It is therefore not yet possible to draw any lessons from America as regards republican constitutions.”

It is hard to imagine a more sober statement than this, and one less full of moonshine and nonsense. Here Hegel is telling those who have made up their minds about the significance of the United States not to jump the gun -- it is too early to say how its historical course will develop. It may be that America will prove that large scale republics are possible; but, on the other hand, it may not prove this at all. Only the future can decide this question.

In other words, not only does Hegel refrain from trying to predict the future himself, but he discourages it in others. Not only does he refuse to give “absolute answers” on the question of where history is headed, he rejects even tentative ones. In fact, all he is prepared to say is that a society that has a vast frontier available to it can afford a more libertarian and less centralized form of government than one that lacks such a frontier.

Curiously enough, those who are familiar with the American historian Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous Frontier Thesis will see that Hegel anticipated the basic logic of this thesis sixty years before Turner announced it. What might well have surprised Hegel is how short a time it would take to declare the American frontier closed.

Yet Hegel was quite prepared for history to surprise him. Unlike Marx, who did believe that history obeyed iron-clad laws similar to those scientific laws that governed the behavior of physical objects, Hegel recognized that the existence of human freedom, and the role of accident and chance, rendered all attempts to predict the future course of history futile and even dangerous. Again, unlike Marx who did believe that history would have an end, Hegel emphatically rejected such a notion. There would always be something to divide human beings, and hence there would always be a struggle between them, and out of this struggle would arise the phenomenon known as history.

The normally reliable Mr. Harris seems not to have taken Mr. Fukuyama's point here. The argument is not that history will cease happening because it has reached its end--an obvious absurdity--but that in liberal democracy mankind has reached an End of History in the sense that the millennia long argument over what kind of state and society is the best has been decided dispositively in favor of liberal democracy:
The distant origins of the present volume lie in an article entitled “The End of History?” which I wrote for the journal The National Interest in the summer of 1989. In it, I argued that a remarkable consensus concerning the legitimacy of liberal democracy as a system of government had emerged throughout the world over the past few years, as it conquered rival ideologies like hereditary monarchy, fascism, and most recently communism. More than that, however, I argued that liberal democracy may constitute the “end point of mankind’s ideological evolution” and the “final form of human government,” and as such constituted the “end of history.” That is, while earlier forms of government were characterised by grave defects and irrationalities that led to their eventual collapse, liberal democracy was arguably free from such fundamental internal contradictions. This was not to say that today’s stable democracies, like the United States, France, or Switzerland, were not without injustice or serious social problems. But these problems were ones of incomplete implementation of the twin principles of liberty and equality on which modern democracy is founded, rather than of flaws in the principles themselves. While some present-day countries might fail to achieve stable liberal democracy, and others might lapse back into other, more primitive forms of rule like theocracy or military dictatorship, the ideal of liberal democracy could not be improved on.

The more accurate argument against Mr. Fukuyama is that, like almost all neocons, he's failed to understand the centrality of religion to human affairs and, therefore, not understood that for most countries the End will indeed be their end. That sad fact leaves plenty of tragic history to be played out, but can't change the fundamental point that the Anglo-American Judeo-Christian Republic can not be too much improved upon.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 30, 2006 1:12 PM

We should probably start taking nominations for The Worst Article or Book Title of All Time Award. First nomination would have to go to Fukuyama. Unless, of course, the plan was to spend the rest of his career explaining how the End of History doesn't really mean the end of history. Steady work if you want it, one supposes.

Posted by: joe shropshire at January 30, 2006 1:33 PM


Except that not only was he right but our entire nation has been run on the assumption he's right for its entire history. It's just this speech with an intellectual pedigree:


Posted by: oj at January 30, 2006 1:47 PM

We don't need no stinking king or queen. We have Eric and Julia. Et al. And they're disposable.

Posted by: ghostcat at January 30, 2006 2:34 PM

If the ancient forests of Germany still existed, the French Revolution would never have occurred. North America will be comparable with Europe only after the measureless space which this country affords is filled and its civil society begins to press in on itself.

That said, our frontiers remain for we have the Great North Woods into which our dissenters and slackers continue to seek a new life ... in Canada, our last frontier. It'll take a loong time to fill that one up.

Posted by: Genecis at January 30, 2006 2:48 PM

Part of the genius (or simple good fortune) of America is that we still have a virtually unlimited frontier, and remains a land of absolutely unlimited opportunity.

It's just that now the "virtually unlimited frontier" is literally virtual, existing as a common American state of mind, and a widespread "can-do" social attitude.

There's a reason that there are a million American millionaire households.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 30, 2006 2:49 PM

Michael correctly divides the spiritual frontier of freedom from the mere physical frontier.

What is being called "liberal democracy" (a better term might be "ordered liberty" just because the left has poisoned both the word, liberal" and the word, "democracy.") might be better understood not as the end of history in the sense a final resting point but in the sense of the natural, purposeful goal of history.

Regression is always a possibility. We may lose our way, and turn away from righteousness. The path of ordered liberty is the way of real progress, of peace, of freedom and of prosperity.

What would draw some of us away from our end is what ever did so from the beginning. Namely sin in all its forms: hatred, greed, envy, lust and all the rest which make us choose evil over good. In much of the world whole cultures have started down wrong roads and must be led back to their natural end, or be destroyed.

What! Destroy a culture? Yes, destroy the pagans of pre-historic Europe, the Aztecs, the Nazis, the Nipponists, the Communists, and be well rid of them all.

Posted by: Lou Gots at January 30, 2006 3:16 PM

Actually, the actual, physical nation is still empty.

OJ: I would love to see an explanation of this desire for a King. As far as I can see, all it would do is rob the American system of one of its saving graces, the Presidency.

Posted by: David Cohen at January 30, 2006 3:59 PM

A king would just serve as a final apolitical buffer with authority to veto any bill or overturn any Court decision and to call elections.

Posted by: oj at January 30, 2006 4:03 PM

Lou: thus the value of a physical frontier. It's a lot harder for your neighbor to focus his envy, greed, lust, and so forth on you when you're a mere line of smoke at his far horizon. With that said, what Michael said, as usual.

Posted by: joe shropshire at January 30, 2006 4:16 PM

How on earth would someone with the "authority to veto any bill or overturn any Court decision and to call elections" ever manage to stay apolitical?

Posted by: Brandon at January 30, 2006 4:31 PM

Because of how seldom the power needs to be exercised.

Posted by: oj at January 30, 2006 4:36 PM

"We sure could use a gal like Queen Victoria agaaaaainn.."

Posted by: Gideon at January 30, 2006 4:48 PM

OJ: Haven't you heard, we have a king; King George.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at January 30, 2006 5:36 PM


Who gets to determine when the power "needs" to be exercised? And what happens if interested parties disagree?

Posted by: Brandon at January 30, 2006 6:26 PM

Isn't Hegel sufficiently occupied with the affairs of Nebraska in the US Senate?

Posted by: obc at January 30, 2006 6:44 PM


That's why it's left to the only truly disinterested party: the king.

Posted by: oj at January 30, 2006 7:50 PM

So, if we get Prince Charles we're sunk for his, um, lifetime?

Posted by: David Cohen at January 30, 2006 8:25 PM

Needn't and shouldn't be hereditary.

Posted by: oj at January 30, 2006 8:31 PM

Bah. We bow to no one but God, and we have no king but Elvis.

Posted by: Ptah at January 30, 2006 9:09 PM

Call him up and ask him if he wants the gig.

Posted by: joe shropshire at January 30, 2006 9:49 PM

So you just want to add a few powers and a longer term to the Presidency?

Posted by: David Cohen at January 31, 2006 11:15 AM

No. It wouldn't affect the presidency other than to add one more check and balance.

Posted by: oj at January 31, 2006 11:22 AM