A New Age of Theory
Alexis de Tocqueville's explanation of the descent of the French Revolution into the Terror, in The Old Regime and the Revolution, emphasized the outsized role that men of letters played in French political discourse prior to the Revolution. These writers, as described by de Tocqueville, had a decided preference for "general and abstract theories of government" and a tendency "to trust in them blindly." Since they dwelt at "an almost infinite distance from practice . . . no experience tempered the ardors of their natures; nothing warned them of the obstacles that existing facts might place before them."
With the passage of time, "they . . . became much bolder in their innovations, fonder of general ideas and systems, more contemptuous of old wisdom, and still more confident of their individual reason. . . ," writes de Tocqueville.
We live in another such age of theory, writes Alain Finkelkraut. Take for example the lunatic claim that Jews are committing genocide against the Palestinians. Under Israeli rule of the West Bank from 1967 to 1992, life expectancy leaped by 50% -- from 48 to 72; infant mortality dropped by 75%; seven universities were built where none had existed, and Palestinian illiteracy was reduced to a fraction of that in neighboring Egypt and Syria; and the West Bank, as of 1992, had the fourth fastest growing economy in the world. If that be genocide, it was genocide of a decidedly peculiar sort.
But, explains Finkelkraut, Europeans have theory according to which Jews are uniquely capable of genocide today. And in an age of theory, a beautiful theory trumps a thousand unruly facts. What's the theory? Because Jews were the victims of the Holocaust, not its perpetrators, they never learned of the danger of turning one's fellow human beings into the dehumanized "Other." From which it follows that Jews dehumanize Palestinians and are committing genocide against them. Never mind the facts.
The recently signed p5+1 nuclear deal with Iran is based on another beautiful theory: The nicer the United States is to the Iranian mullahs, the more she caves into their demands and acknowledges their valid reasons for hating America, the more they will seek to be like us and want to be good citizens of the world. President Obama has literally bet the fate of the world on that conjecture.
Neither tens of thousands chanting "Death to America" nor Supreme Leader Khameini's insistence that Iran will continue to fight American arrogance even after the deal because hatred of America is the very raison d'etre of the regime register with supporters of the theory.
The theory that the Iranian theocracy will be transformed by kindness betrays another failure of progressive theorists from the French Revolution to the present: They view religion as "irrational," and cannot fathom that anyone else takes its claims seriously. That Iran's Islamic Revolution really seeks world conquest for Islam is too absurd to countenance as an explanation of regime behavior.
Another Obama theory holds that even rabid anti-Semites, like the Iranian mullahs, will not act upon their hatreds to the harm of their "rational" interests. But history proves the opposite: The Nazis diverted vital war material in an effort to wipe out Hungarian Jewry in Auschwitz.
The attachment to theory over empirical evidence is evidenced in the way that Left policy prescriptions remain constant despite their repeated failures. What Walter Russell Mead calls the Blue Model of governance – high taxes, high regulation, and generous public union pensions – is failing everywhere. From mid-size California cities to Detroit, Chicago, and most recently, Puerto Rico, it has led to literal bankruptcy.
A vicious cycle sets in of higher taxes to pay pensions based on fantastical assumptions followed by the flight of business and jobs to lower tax states followed by yet higher taxes on those remaining to compensate for the lost business and jobs. Eventually, Blue Model cities and states experience the highest income inequality, as the population divides between extremely high earners, on the one hand, and the menial workers who serve them and welfare recipients, on the other.
The Obama administration has now set out to increase Muslim immigration, despite Europe's dystopian experience, which has left it poised to become an extension of the Maghreb by the end the century, with an increasingly radicalized and unassimilated Muslim population taking over.
The theories of the Left are unmoored from reality because they have less to do with seeking to make life better than with the emotional reaffirmation they offer their proponents. Every Democratic candidate, for instance, will call for universal pre-school education, despite 50 years of evidence that Head Start early intervention has no lasting impact.
Similarly, every Democratic candidate will advocate heavy government investment in abundant, renewable "green" energy – such as ethanol, the production of which actually creates more pollution than it saves – even though "green energy" consistently proves to be economically unviable and a drag on economic productivity in the form of higher energy costs. Billions of dollars of taxpayer money, however, will inevitably find their way into the pockets of "green energy" crony capitalists.
The attraction of "renewables" is primarily the feeling of moral virtue they confer on proponents. And the same is true of Head Start and calls for a $15/and hour minimum wage, which would only ensure that orders at McDonald's will be taken by a machine and not by some striving high-school kid eager to earn money for college or a poor, single-mother with no marketable skills. Estimates of the American jobs likely lost if the minimum wage were to rise to $15/hour range from 3,000,000 to 6,000,000, most of them to low-wage earners. But how deliciously virtuous must legislators feel enacting minimum wage laws.
THOSE WHO PREFER THEORY over history and facts do not just produce bad policy: They are subject to a profoundly illiberal, even totalitarian, temptation. That was De Tocqueville's subject. Their theory of government is that "smart" people – i.e., theoreticians like themselves -- ought to run the show. A corollary is that all smart people will reach similar "rational" conclusions, and that those who don't are either fools or evil. Not surprisingly, when human beings and reality fail to conform to their theories, they turn ornery. Think Pol Pot.
Hostility to free markets and a profound ambivalence towards representative democracy are part and parcel of the preference for abstractions. The former are too irrational and chaotic. Markets give equal value to the desires of the not-so-bright. Central planning, by contrast, is much more rational, or so it seems, until one considers its unbroken record of failure. Just think of resource rich Venezuela, where years of socialist rule have made both food and toilet paper scarce.
Similarly the flaw of representative democracy is that fools and geniuses alike have one vote. The preferred form of municipal government for early American Progressives was unelected city managers, above the fray of partisan politics. And those same early Progressives created the modern administrative state, whose rule-making by unelected bureaucratic "experts," has become virtually indistinguishable from the law-making power conferred exclusively upon Congress by the Constitution.
Self-styled progressive Barack Obama is perfectly comfortable ruling by executive decree and through administrative agencies, like the Environmental Protection Agency, which seeks to impose by rule-making what could never pass in Congress.
Obama's progressive ancestor, President Woodrow Wilson, famously declared the U.S. Constitution, with its federal system and checks and balances between the three branches, to be an outmoded document for the modern age, and called for a much more powerful unitary executive.
Progressive thinkers have little patience for the rules of procedure of representative democracy or its allocation of decision-making authority. Only results matter and that the smart people make the decisions – be they judges, agency bureaucrats, or the president himself. Neither Court President Aharon Barak in his heyday nor Justice Anthony Kennedy more recently showed the slightest concern over whom appointed them philosopher-king to determine the nature of human dignity.
The assumption that those who disagree are either stupid or evil undercuts the fundamental democratic value of tolerance. On issues like anthropogenic climate change, modern progressive are ever eager to declare the debate over, and even advocate criminal penalties for global warming deniers. (This at a time when many climate scientists are forecasting a mini-Ice Age based on lower solar activity.)
Anyone who follows nutrition and health reports knows how wildly fluctuating the best scientific advice is. How much more unlikely is the discussion to be over in the vastly more complex area of climate, involving up to twenty different scientific disciplines and in which controlled experiments are impossible.
Not by accident are the most progressive institutions in American society – the universities – those with the most restrictive speech codes designed to regulate various and sundry "micro-aggressions" in speech.
The Orwellian argument of the late Brandeis philosopher Herbert Marcuse that "new and rigid restrictions" on certain teachings that protect the oppressive status quo are required for true freedom of thought to flourish only represents the outer limit of where the preference for abstractions over human reality can lead.