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G. Lee Bowie, Robert C. Solomon

Suicide of the West: An Essay on the Meaning and Destiny of Liberalism

Suicide of the West - James Burnham The premise of The Suicide of the West is that the West is in decline, and the decline is fueled by the rise of liberalism. Despite the strong title, most of the book is an attempt at an objective definition of liberalism. Only the beginning and end actually discuss why liberalism could potentially lead to the end of Western Civilization. Burnham doesn't believe liberalism is the cause, per se, of the decline of the West, but "that liberalism has come to be the verbal systematization of the process of Western contraction and withdrawal; that liberalism motivates and justifies the contraction and reconciles us to it." To me that sounds like a convoluted way of saying it is the cause, but I'll give him the benefit of the doubt.What exactly is this dangerous ideology capable of motivating the decline of Western Civilization? "Modern liberalism, which contrary to the traditional doctrine, holds that there is nothing intrinsic to the nature of man that makes it impossible for human society to achieve goals of peace, freedom, justice and well-being. Ideals that liberalism assumes to be desirable and to define "the good society." Liberalism is about optimism. Liberals believe that all men have equal civilizing potential. They hold that freedom of speech should extended to all, no matter how extreme their ideas, and that the vote of the people should always decide who is right. Liberalism believes in the potential of humankind to be raised to a state of world peace and harmony never before seen in history. Terrible and obviously suicidal, right? I didn't think so either. The question is, do I, or indeed, do liberals really believe this? With enough education, science, technological progress, good government etc. is it possible to take humans with all our foibles and create the perfect society? What about just ending hunger? Poverty? War? Oppression? The belief that any or all of those goals are realistically achievable is actually fairly modern according to Burnham. It became popular within the last 400 or 500 years, starting with Bacon and Descartes. Before them, and others like them, achieving the perfect society wasn't the goal or ideal of government. It simply wasn't considered possible given human nature and human history. People weren't waiting on science to create an earthly paradise, they were waiting on Jesus.If liberals believe that they should work on the noble goal of forming a perfect society, what do conservatives want? A conservative wants slow change. He prefers either to maintain the status quo or possibly even return to how things were in "the good ole' days." The basic idea is "if things work okay now, why risk the unknown potential negative implications associated with changing them? Instead, let's do everything we can to maintain what we have." Does that sound pessimistic to you? Depressing even? It does to me. Is it realistic though? Is it more rational than the liberal's constant tendency to reform? Maybe.If a perfect society is possible, why haven't we achieved it yet? A liberal's answer is fairly simple: people are still ignorant and we still have not created the necessary social institutions to remedy the ignorance. For someone like Burnham, this is the perfect chance to lay into the ideology and, at times, succeed in making it look pretty absurd.He does this by showing how liberalism explains away any crime committed by someone who is poor, a minority or in almost any other social situation, as a failure of society, rather than as a personal failure of the criminal. He shows that often the problems liberals are trying to solve are problems of people who have no desire to have their problems solved and how liberals, motivated by guilt, waste enormous resources trying to bring about worldwide equality.It's hard to argue that liberalism is ALL bad, and Burnham doesn't. He cautiously concedes that liberalism has led to some societal good. Still, despite the fact that many liberal ideals are laudable, most attempts to implement them are misguided. The human condition can be improved, but you can't always convince terrorists to resort to peaceful methods for achieving their goals by negotiating with them. You can't solve hunger by sending lots of money to Africa and alas, you'll never create a perfect society by having millions of voters with diverse motivations and interests participate in a democracy. To state the root of the problem, "the liberal assumes... that men, given a knowledge of the problem and freedom to choose, will opt for peace, justice and plenty. But the facts do not bear him out either for individuals or for societies. Individuals choose, very often, trouble, pain, injury, for themselves and for others." In other words, the problem of liberalism lies in human nature as defined by history.Most people desire life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and the social conditions necessary to optimize those rights. The question then becomes, what is the best way to achieve these conditions? An ideologist will have a ready answer to almost any problem that arises. In the case of liberalism, the solution is almost always the opposite of "conserving" tradition or the status quo. Instead, a liberal's approach is to value hope over experience and to destroy or drastically reform existing foundations and build again. Occasionally this approach leads to desirable results but, as any software developer will tell you, starting over usually isn't the best way to fix a bug. The correct approach, Burnham would argue, is to look at each problem individually and without the lens of an ideology, liberal or otherwise. Something much easier said than done. He points out: "As a rule, a man, when his ideological lenses are shattered, is in haste to replace them with another set ground to a new prescription. The unfiltered world is not his dish of tea."A conservative prefers renewal to reform. He advocates an "equality of legal rights" rather than striving for equality of class or condition. He opts for individual improvement over collective, patriotism over internationalism, family and community over the "bloodless abstraction" of humanity and peace over strength as the "highest social value." Again, why is liberalism the root of the Suicide of the West? Because it values global equality over strength, global order over national order. It means that the West must stop expanding either through the spread of native ideas and truths that we hold to be inalienable as well as stopping all physical expansion such as colonialism or imperialism. Burnham argues that if we choose not to expand, we are choosing to contract. Liberalism doesn't deny this contraction, in fact it tries to reconcile us to it. Despite being written over 45 years ago, The Suicide of the West feels fresh and remains relevant. It definitely altered my way of viewing the world and it has really caused me to take a closer look at what I know and believe.