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Did Liberalism Fail the Test of Covid?

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I am completely obsessed with the question of whether liberalism failed in response to Covid. As I’ve written before, I think it is perhaps the most important question in the world right now. If liberalism failed then we are now seeking an alternative to liberalism. If liberalism did not fail (or was lynched) then perhaps we are seeking a return to liberalism (or the introduction of “true” liberalism for the first time). I believe that figuring out this question will provide a map to guide us out of the valley of death that we are currently in.

In the search for answers I’ve read two books recently, Why Liberalism Failed by Patrick Deneen (published in 2018) and Liberalism Against Itself by Samuel Moyn (published in 2023). They are very different books — Patrick Deneen is a conservative who is criticizing liberalism from the right while Samuel Moyn is a liberal who is trying to defend liberalism from its misguided proponents. Today I want to focus on Why Liberalism Failed because I think it unwittingly offers us a stunning insight into our present dilemma.

The essence of Deneen’s argument is this:

  • In an earlier era (ancient Greece and Rome but also many other ancient wisdom traditions) the passions (emotions, desire) were seen as the source of suffering — a type of slavery. Thus freedom was attained through the development of personal virtues that restrained the passions. This is also the prevailing ethos of Christianity throughout the Middle Ages.
  • The “classical liberalism” that starts to develop in the 1500s and is best expressed by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations (1776) is a radical break from most of human history in that it sought freedom through unleashing the passions from any and all constraint.
  • This modern conception of freedom has produced remarkable economic growth but it has run its course and produced the very sort of degradation predicted by pre-modern scholars.
  • Deneen’s conclusion in Why Liberalism Failed (and a subsequent book titled Regime Change) is that we should return to the ancient notion of freedom through personal restraint because that’s the better path to happiness and fulfillment in this life.

Deneen argues that the hinge point in history — that flipped our understanding of freedom from restraint to unrestraint — is the writings of Niccolò Machiavelli:

It was Machiavelli who broke with the classical and Christian aspiration to temper the tyrannical temptation through an education in virtue, scoring the premodern philosophic tradition as an unbroken series of unrealistic and unreliable fantasies of “imaginary republics and principalities that have never existed in practice and never could; for the gap between how people actually behave and how they ought to behave is so great that anyone who ignores everyday reality in order to live up to an ideal will soon discover that he has been taught how to destroy himself, not how to preserve himself.” Rather than promoting unrealistic standards for behavior — especially self-limitation— that could at best be unreliably achieved, Machiavelli proposed grounding a political philosophy upon readily observable human behaviors of pride, selfishness, greed, and the quest for glory. He argued further that liberty and political security were better achieved by pitting different domestic classes against one another, encouraging each to limit the others through “ferocious conflict” in the protection of their particular interests rather than by lofty appeals to “common good” and political concord. By acknowledging ineradicable human selfishness and the desire for material goods, one might conceive of ways to harness those motivations rather than seeking to moderate or limit those desires. (p. 24-25)

(The rest of this essay is all me, applying Deneen’s work to the iatrogenocide.)

The paradox of Machiavelli is that he is despised even though his ideas were the catalyst for the liberalism that most people love today. I don’t wish to defend Machiavelli so much as to trace his influence on liberalism.

Machiavelli is widely seen as immoral. But perhaps there is an entirely different way to read his motivations. Machiavelli was trying to solve a series of problems — the Florentine government he served was often violently overthrown (in one instance Machiavelli was captured and tortured). Furthermore France, Spain, and the various states of the Holy Roman Empire were continuously at war with each other. Machiavelli was a republican who sought to unify the Italian states.

The realpolitik that Machiavelli is known for aimed to play the passions of people off against each other to achieve a more stable system than could be attained by appealing to people’s virtues. One could make the case that Machiavelli sought neither anarchy nor authoritarianism but rather balance through realism. (“The Florentine” by Claudia Roth Pierpont in the New Yorker is a wonderful short biography of Machiavelli and I used it as a source for this paragraph. But it’s behind a paywall.)

Machiavelli’s writings influenced Anglo-Dutch philosopher Bernard Mandeville whose book, The Fable of the Bees (1714), argues that “vices, such as vanity and greed, produce publicly beneficial results.”

Adam Smith then applied Machiavelli and Mandeville’s arguments to economics in The Wealth of Nations (1776) that claims that self-interest in a market economy produces a virtuous society:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.

Our entire economic system is built on the idea that individual greed in the marketplace produces the most efficient allocation of resources.

(By the way, I have not seen other scholars make the connection between Machiavelli and Smith before, probably because Machiavelli is so hated and Smith so beloved, but the connection is as plain as day.)

Then the revolutionary leaders who founded the United States of America applied Machiavelli’s arguments to politics pitting the different branches of government against each other as embodied in the US Constitution in 1787. The British system was based on the idea that the nobility was more virtuous and better able to make decisions. The American idea of government is that all people are corruptible but if we can set the legislative, executive, and judicial branches against each other, government will not have as much time, energy, and ability to tyrannize the citizenry.

We have lived under a Machiavellian system — based on the notion that self-interest produces a more virtuous society than appeals to virtue — ever since.

As a good lefty I have railed against the notion that self-interest could somehow produce virtue (if one sets up the rules of society correctly) for my entire life. It is absurd on its face, the reasoning of a child who just wants to eat cookies all day. But when one actually reads Smith, he’s not the hedonistic cartoon character that modern American society has turned him into. Smith really did want a moral society. But he believed that paradoxically, self-interested individuals in competition with other self-interested individuals actually produce the most virtuous outcomes.

And what if he is right?

When two selfish jerks negotiate against each other in a market economy, engaging in rigorous due diligence on the assumption that the other person is trying to screw him, one genuinely can end up with a fair deal for both sides. Furthermore, as we learn from game theory, since this is an infinite game where these transactions are repeated over and over, players can punish each other for bad behavior, which leads to more fair play and something akin to virtue over time.

Think about everyone you know — do appeals to virtue actually work? Or are you better off anticipating that they will act in a self-interested way and proceeding accordingly? And if you proceed based on this more pessimistic assumption, are you better off in the end?

Furthermore, think about every institution or system in the world that is/was based on appeals to virtue.

  • Communist systems the world over that were based on appeals to virtue ended up as immoral dystopias.
  • The Catholic Church, the exemplar of appeals to virtue, has been engulfed in the pedophile priest scandal for two decades (and the problem has probably been going on for millennia).
  • I spent a lot of time in American Buddhist circles in the early 2000s and they are a hot mess filled with endless scandals because there are no checks and balances on the leaders.
  • American nonprofits, an entire system of the tax code that assumes that some activities are more virtuous than others, are a dysfunctional hellscape.*
  • *Not all communists, Catholic leaders, Buddhist priests, and nonprofits, but far too many.

Let’s go one step further in this argument. A strong case can be made that the reason why we are in the middle of an iatrogenocide is that we (as a society) mistakenly thought that scientists and doctors were somehow better people than the rest of us — that their training and perspective made them more virtuous than others. The result has been an absolute disaster. Science and medicine have colluded to profit from the mass poisoning of children at least since 1986 (one could also posit the start of the poisoning of children as the 1962 Vaccination Assistance Act or the introduction of aluminum into vaccines in 1931).

Nearly all of science and medicine have been engaged in mass genocide of the entire population throughout the developed world since March 2020. Given that, wouldn’t we be infinitely better off if we proceeded from the assumption that nearly all scientists and doctors are liars — greedy assholes who just want power, money, fame, and control — and then set up systems to pit scientists against each other and regulators against each other and the public against scientists and regulators?

There are lots of ways that one could do this:

  • Repealing liability protection for Pharma would enable us to debate scientific facts in the courts in front of a jury of our peers.
  • Repealing the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 would prevent academics from profiting from federally-funded research.
  • Paying bonuses to whistleblowers who identify flaws in clinical trials or FDA reviews would incentivize honesty.
  • Removing intellectual property protections for pharmaceutical drugs would drain hundreds of billions of dollars from the system and cause capital to go elsewhere.
  • Making all scientific data publicly available (see proposals by el gato malo here and here) would empower independent researchers to identify flaws with drug trials.
  • Closing the FDA, CDC, and NIH entirely would return power to the local level and decision-making to individuals and families.

I’m sure you can think of lots more reforms that would stem from the assumption that scientists and doctors are mostly just greedy liars who are in it for themselves (and I’m eager to read your recommendations in the comments).

So I’m grateful to Patrick Deneen for his wonderful history of philosophy that sparked these ideas. However, at least for now I stand in opposition to his notion that we should seek to return to an earlier era founded on virtue. Given our current crisis, it sounds appealing. But that is also the logic of the Taliban, ISIS, ayatollahs, and mullahs — that we must return to an earlier, more principled era where the family, father, custom, region, and religion are paramount.

I’m still agnostic on the question of whether liberalism failed in the current crisis. It seems to me that the evidence is overwhelming that liberalism has always depended on empire, conquest, and genocide and our current crisis stems from the fact that biochemistry, CRISPR, and gain-of-function viruses are just the latest way for the ruling class to manage its assets. Then again, any system that steals lots of land and labor will look successful for a while (Great Britain, the US, the Soviet Union, China, the Roman Empire, ancient Egypt, etc.) — that’s not the fault of liberalism.

At the end of the day though, I’m not at all convinced that appeals to Aristotelian virtue are the way out of this mess (even though I very much want people to be virtuous). I believe that the way forward is either some radical reform of liberalism or a higher synthesis that we have not yet identified.

Republished from the author’s Substack



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Author

  • Toby Rogers

    Toby Rogers has a Ph.D. in political economy from the University of Sydney in Australia and a Master of Public Policy degree from the University of California, Berkeley. His research focus is on regulatory capture and corruption in the pharmaceutical industry. Dr. Rogers does grassroots political organizing with medical freedom groups across the country working to stop the epidemic of chronic illness in children. He writes about the political economy of public health on Substack.

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