July 9, 2007


Democratic Capitalism and its Discontents (Jamie Glazov, July 9, 2007, FrontPageMagazine.com)

Frontpage Interview's guest today is Brian Anderson, the editor of the Manhattan Institute's flagship magazine, City Journal. He is the author of Raymond Aron: the Recovery of the Political, the controversial 2005 book South Park Conservatives: the Revolt Against Liberal Media Bias, and now, a new book of political theory, Democratic Capitalism and its Discontents, just out from ISI. [...]

FP: What inspired you to write this book?

Anderson: Puzzlement over an undisputed historical fact: what is it about our prosperous, free-market democracies-by far the freest and most comfortable in human history-that makes them dissatisfying to so many, primarily on the left but also to some extent on the right, too. A series of essays that I'd written for various magazines circled around this theme, and they became the book's starting point.

The book defends democratic capitalism from its ideological opponents but also tries to be open-eyed about what existential weaknesses erode free societies from within. I take as my guides a number of very profound thinkers-historian Fran├žois Furet, social theorists Francis Fukuyama, Irving Kristol, and Michael Novak, the Italian philosopher Rocco Buttiglione, French political thinkers Raymond Aron, Bertrand de Jouvenel, and Pierre Manent, and the skeptical conservative John Kekes, among other broadly contemporary writers, and, looming in the background, that giant of Western political thought, Alexis de Tocqueville.

But the book also takes aim at such haters of free societies as the bloodthirsty Jean-Paul Sartre, the one-time terrorist and anti-globalization prophet Antonio Negri, and-particularly influential in our universities and legal culture-the philosopher of justice as "fairness," John Rawls.

FP: What are some of the challenges that democratic capitalism faces in the new millennium?

Anderson: The late Furet provides a historical gateway into problems seemingly inseparable from our free societies. His magisterial The Passing of an Illusion: The Idea of Communism in the Twentieth Century, published in French in 1995, argues that Communism's blend of wild revolutionary will and murky pseudo-science proved so attractive to so many because it exploited two primal weaknesses of the bourgeois regime.

The first, says Furet-and I discuss this at length in my opening chapter, "Capitalism and the Suicide of Culture"-is the egalitarianism unleashed by liberal democracy. The idea of man's universal equality, claimed by liberal democracy as its foundation, is inherently unstable-and subject to a kind of radical overbidding. The very freedoms that liberal societies secure-to pursue wealth, to better one's condition, to create, to strive for success-unceasingly generate new inequalities, since not everybody has the same talent, the same background, the same luck, the same propensity to work. Equality becomes a kind of imaginary horizon, forever retreating as our societies seek to approach it. Communism said it would achieve this equality, once and for all; it just had to break a few eggs, get rid of some political obstacles, accelerate history. Rawls promises something similar, in a calmer, more prosaic way, though not without its own totalitarian implications: achieving a more equal society, muses Rawls, may require genetic engineering, to overcome natural differences.

The second primal weakness of the "bourgeois city," as Furet calls it, is moral indeterminacy. Basing itself on the individual, liberal democracy rebels against, or at least downplays, any extra-human dimension that might provide "hard" answers to the ultimate questions. For all the wondrous liberations of the bourgeois city-its freedom from political tyranny and the dictatorship of material poverty-it privatizes these existential questions, frustrating a natural human impulse to see our highest ideals reflected in our political institutions. Communism, usurping the role of religion, said it would answer these questions politically; the fanatics of Islam seek to politicize human ends as well.

My book is basically saying: live with these two bourgeois dissatisfactions, and keep them in check. Certainly don't try to get rid of them politically. The alternatives are much, much worse-indeed have led to horrible suffering.

Which is why the genius of the Founding lies in both its explicit grounding in the Creator and its establishment of a republic, which emphasizes liberty (equality before the law), not freedom or egalitarian results.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 9, 2007 10:18 PM
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