The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities By John J. Mearsheimer

Here are some excerpts from this 2018 book:

Political liberalism, in fact, comes in two varieties: what some call modus vivendi liberalism and progressive liberalism, a terminology I use throughout this book.11 There are basically two important differences between them, the first of which concerns how they think about individual rights. Modus vivendi liberals conceive of rights almost exclusively in terms of individual freedoms, by which they mean the freedom to act without fear of government intrusion. Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the right to hold property are representative examples of these rights. The government exists to protect these freedoms from threats that might emanate either from within the broader society or from outside it. Progressive liberals prize the same individual freedoms, which are sometimes called negative rights, but they are also deeply committed to a set of rights that are actively promoted by the government. They believe, for example, that everyone has a right to equal opportunity, which can be achieved only with active government involvement. Modus vivendi liberals are intensely opposed to this notion of positive rights.

This discussion of individual rights leads to the second important difference between modus vivendi and progressive liberalism. They differ sharply on the role the state should assume, beyond keeping the peace at home. Modus vivendi liberals, in line with their emphasis on protecting individual freedoms and their skepticism about positive rights, maintain that the state should involve itself in society as little as possible. Unsurprisingly, they tend to be dismissive about governments’ ability to do social engineering. Progressive liberals take the opposite view. They prefer an activist state that can promote individual rights, and they have much more faith in the capacity of governments to do social engineering.

While there is little doubt that both kinds of political liberalism receive great attention in the world of ideas, in practice, progressive liberalism has triumphed over modus vivendi liberalism. The complexities and demands of life in the modern world leave states with no choice but to be deeply engaged in social engineering, including promoting positive rights.

Pg. 22 Faith in reason was especially pronounced during the Enlightenment, the era in European history from roughly 1650 to 1800 that is sometimes called the Age of Reason.10 Many European intellectuals at the time, horrified by the long religious wars that ensued from the Protestant Reformation, wanted to believe that religion was a fading force and that the growth of science and education would provide people with the tools to recognize the essential truths about the good life. The power of reason would triumph over faith and settle many of the great questions of the day that religion had been unable to answer. Objective truth about the good life was thought to be possible.

The French philosopher Nicolas de Condorcet captured this optimistic outlook when he wrote in his 1794 book Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Human Mind that his object “will be to show, from reasoning and from facts, that no bounds have been fixed to the improvement of the human faculties; that the perfectibility of man is absolutely indefinite; that the progress of this perfectibility . . . has no other limit than the duration of the globe upon which nature has placed us.”11 The British philosopher William Godwin went so far as to argue in 1793 that “man is perfectible” and that our understanding of justice would eventually be so advanced that there will be no need for government.12 Most Enlightenment thinkers’ claims were more modest, but almost all of them had faith in the ability of human reason to significantly improve the human condition.

24: Many of the main bodies of Anglo-Saxon legal theory reject the notion that the law is or should be based on universal moral principles. They include critical mote secularization. Thus we are faced today with “the proliferation of secular and religious truth claims along with related practices that constitute contemporary hyperpluralism.”16 In short, the history of religion offers little support for the claim that our critical faculties can help us reach broad agreement on core principles.

Some might think the American legal system is a domain where reason and deliberation lead to widespread agreement about right and wrong. Many Americans surely think that justice is ultimately based on a well-defined and well-established inventory of moral principles. Nothing could be further from the truth. Many of the main bodies of Anglo-Saxon legal theory reject the notion that the law is or should be based on universal moral principles. They include critical
legal studies, law and economics, legal positivism, legal realism, and liberal legalism.

There are certainly legal scholars who believe judges should rely on universal moral principles. Natural law theorists fit in this category. Probably the most famous proponent of this position is Ronald Dworkin, who asserts that “adjudication is characteristically a matter of principle rather than policy,” even while acknowledging that this is a minority view. “Anglo-American lawyers,” he writes, “have on the whole been skeptical about the possibility of a ‘right answer’ in any genuinely hard case.” They are skeptical for good reason: lawyers and judges rarely agree about first principles or on how to apply them in difficult cases. For Dworkin, “the root principle” on which courts should base their decisions is that “government must treat people as equals,” by which he means the government should actively work to promote equality by providing everyone with equal resources to compete, even if that means restricting liberty. This is a legitimate point of view, but it is not widely shared.

26: Finally, a word is in order about how Leo Strauss thought about our ability to divine the good life, which he took to be the main purpose of political philosophy. The common view of Strauss, a highly influential political philosopher, is that he believed that the best and brightest in any society can discern a coherent body of natural laws and rights. These chosen few would use their superior intellect to discover eternal truths, which would help them govern wisely.

This is not an accurate interpretation of Strauss’s thinking. Probably the best evidence he did not think this way is that in all of his voluminous writings, he never set out what those purported moral truths are. This lacuna prompted C. Bradley Thompson and Yaron Brook to “challenge Strauss’s students to explicate and defend a systematic, secular, rationally demonstrable moral code as objectively true.”24 Their challenge went unanswered. This missing body of absolute truths is unsurprising, however, because Strauss himself talks explicitly about “our inability to acquire any genuine knowledge of what is intrinsically good or right.”25 Political philosophy, for Strauss, is all about the pursuit of truth with no promise that anyone will ever discover it. He writes: “Philosophy is essentially not possession of the truth, but quest for the truth. The distinctive tract of the philosopher is that ‘he knows that he knows nothing,’ and that his insight into our ignorance concerning the most important things induces him to strive with all this power for knowledge. . . . It may be that as regards the possible answers to these questions, the pros and cons will always be in more or less even balance, and therefore that philosophy will never go beyond the stage of discussion or disputation, and will never reach the stage of decision.”26 This is hardly an optimistic view of what our critical faculties can do, even with abundant intellectual horsepower.

A close look at Strauss’s writings suggests that he believes reason’s strong suit is not discovering truth but calling into question existing moral codes and other widely held beliefs. He comments at one point that “the more we cultivate reason, the more we cultivate nihilism: the less are we able to be loyal members of society.”27 This belief in reason’s deconstructive power helps explain why Strauss thinks political philosophers are a danger to their own society and also why he believes political philosophy reached a dead end with Nietzsche.28 In other words, even though political philosophy and therefore that philosophy will never go beyond the stage of discussion or disputation, and will never reach the stage of decision.”26 This is hardly an optimistic view of what our critical faculties can do, even with abundant intellectual horsepower.

A close look at Strauss’s writings suggests that he believes reason’s strong suit is not discovering truth but calling into question existing moral codes and other widely held beliefs. He comments at one point that “the more we cultivate reason, the more we cultivate nihilism: the less are we able to be loyal members of society.”27 This belief in reason’s deconstructive power helps explain why Strauss thinks political philosophers are a danger to their own society and also why he believes political philosophy reached a dead end with Nietzsche.28 In other words, even though political philosophy is deeply concerned with the noble pursuit of the good life, it is ultimately a self-destructive enterprise because it privileges reason.

28: An individual’s thinking about the good life is largely shaped by three factors. First and foremost is socialization. Starting at birth, our parents and the broader society bombard us with messages about right and wrong. The principles we are taught largely reflect our society’s cultural norms. But because all societies have evolved in different circumstances, they have distinct cultures. The same is also true of families. This means that individuals vary markedly in their thinking about the good life, depending on the circumstances in which they are raised. The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt concludes, “Children somehow end up with a morality that is unique to their culture or group.”29

The second factor that influences our moral thinking is the set of innate sentiments hardwired into each of us at birth. We are born with a discrete bundle of attitudes or passions that are driven by feelings that are largely independent of the software package that society programs into us over our lifetimes. We are not born as blank slates.

40: Social groups are strongly inclined to grow at the expense of other groups. Not every society has the ability to expand, but the incentive is ever present. There are several possible motives for enlargement, one of which is ideology. The leaders of a society may think they have discovered the true religion or the ideal political system and want to export it to other societies, because they think it would benefit humankind. A more likely impulse, however, is economic. A group might want to seize another group’s land or raw materials, or simply incorporate the other group’s economy into its own so as to make itself larger and wealthier.

But the main reason societies seek to expand is survival. Because groups can have different interests and profound disagreements about core principles, there is always the possibility one group will threaten another group’s survival. That threat can take different forms. One group might try to kill everyone in a rival group. Or it may leave the target society intact but deny it autonomy. The aggressor controls the resources of the conquered group and heavily influences its politics, or even enslaves it. Finally, the target society may simply be absorbed into the victor’s society. All of these outcomes are disastrous for any society, and fear of them leads societies to fear each other and to worry about their survival.

One of the best ways for a society to increase its survival prospects is to become more powerful. The best insurance is to be much more powerful than all the others. The strong do not always defeat the weak, but they do more often than not. Thus, for purposes of maximizing security, social groups have a strong incentive to incorporate or dominate—even eradicate—other groups. Doing so not only makes a society more powerful but also eliminates potential rivals.

41: Social groups rarely give up their independence to become part of a larger whole. Expansion is almost always the result of one society coercing or conquering another. Societies tend to have markedly different cultures that generally entail fundamental differences over first principles, making it hard for any group to persuade another to abandon its way of life and accept a new set of practices and beliefs. Any society bent on expanding its borders will in all likelihood have to do it by force.

Yet there are limits to what can be achieved by force. Coercion and conquest sometimes work well, but certainly not all of the time. One problem an expansionist group faces is that the target is likely to resist its advances, often with fanatical zeal. Even if the attacking forces defeat an opponent, the victim still might find subtle and sophisticated ways to resist integration.58 Moreover, as a society grows, its potential for disintegration increases, simply because a greater population brings a greater possibility of profound differences about what constitutes the good life. The more different the cultures that are merged, the more severe these value differences are likely to be.

Furthermore, even if a society conquers and absorbs many other groups, it still faces significant limits on additional enlargement. One problem is that there is an abundance of groups on the planet and few of the remaining ones would go down without a fight. And because those groups are spread out around the globe, any group bent on dominating all the others will find that distance makes it harder and harder to project power—a problem that is made worse by large bodies of water, mountain ranges, and deserts.60 Any society can expand only so far before the law of diminishing returns sets in.

These barriers to expansion go a long way toward explaining why there is no global society, and thus why the international system is anarchic.

42 The fact that many people believe universal truth exists and that they have found it only makes the situation worse, as thinking in terms of absolutes makes it hard to promote compromise and tolerance. If almost everyone were a self-acknowledged moral relativist, it would foster a live-and-let-live zeitgeist that would help make the world a more peaceful place. But people are not like that, and the fact that those who disagree with you may be inclined to kill you means that individuals as well as societies will fear each other and worry about their survival.

43: The political philosopher Carl Schmitt maintained that ultimately every theory of politics revolves around the assumption that humans are either essentially good or essentially bad, and some famous thinkers did in fact base their theories on such assumptions.61 Rousseau, for example, argued that humans are essentially good in their natural condition but are corrupted by society.62 Reinhold Niebuhr, on the other hand, believed that humans are born with original sin, which means they are primed to misbehave in various ways for the rest of their lives.63

One problem with Schmitt’s perspective is that good and bad are vague concepts whose meaning is hard to pin down. To the extent that we can wrap our heads around them, surely everyone has some of both traits. Anyway, if one does employ this distinction, what explains why people are naturally good or bad? Attributing it to original sin or something similar does not provide an explanation that we can evaluate through any sort of evidence.

I am also not arguing that humans are naturally aggressive, as some sociobiologists claim, or that they possess an animus dominandi, as Hans Morgenthau famously asserted.64 For sure, some people fit this model, but there are also many who do not. The human species is a variegated lot; we are not all type A personalities. Moreover, one could argue that natural selection leads first and foremost to cooperation, not aggression. Individuals have powerful incentives to cooperate with others, especially fellow members of their group, to maximize their survival prospects. Of course, humans sometimes behave aggressively—and the propensity for aggression certainly varies from one person to the next—but in my story it is often because they have fundamental disagreements about first principles, not because aggression is a hard

51 “The central institution of Rawls’s ‘political liberalism’ is not a deliberative assembly such as a parliament. It is a court of law. All fundamental questions are removed from political deliberation in order to be adjudicated by a Supreme Court. The self-description of Rawlsian doctrine as political liberalism is supremely ironic. In fact, Rawls’s doctrine is a species of anti-political legalism.”

52: Two paradoxes embedded in liberalism merit discussion before we examine the differences between modus vivendi and progressive liberalism. The first paradox concerns tolerance. In any liberal society, some people will reject liberalism and would overturn the political order if given the opportunity. If a substantial number of people held this view, they would surely present a mortal threat to liberalism. It would make little sense in these circumstances for liberals to practice toleration toward their enemies, since a live-and-let-live approach could destroy the regime.

Liberals, of course, are aware of this danger, which means liberalism has a sense of vulnerability at its core that naturally provokes a tendency toward intolerance among liberals. This logic explains in good part why Locke, who wrote a famous essay on the virtues of toleration, was intolerant in his writings toward atheists and Catholics. He believed Catholics could not be trusted because of their allegiance to the pope and their own intolerance, and that atheists could not be trusted because their pledges were not backed up by divine sanction. Both groups were thus, in his mind, a threat to liberalism.22 In practice, the level of threat varies, and this intolerance is usually kept at bay.

Liberalism tends toward intolerance for another reason as well. Most liberals consider liberalism superior to other kinds of political order and believe the world would be a better place if it were populated solely by liberal regimes.

* Liberal progressivism was a powerful force in U.S. politics in the late nineteenth and especially the early twentieth centuries.58 The Republican Party, which was the dominant party until the 1932 presidential election, was closely identified with progressivism. Several constitutional amendments in this era—to authorize the federal income tax, elect senators by popular vote, give women the vote, and prohibit the sale of alcohol—emerged from progressive initiatives. Even Herbert Hoover, contrary to the conventional wisdom, was deeply committed to social engineering when he was secretary of commerce from 1921 to 1928, and as president from 1929 to 1933.59 There is no question, however, that liberal progressivism has had its ups and downs and that its adherents’ initial optimism has waned over time. But overall the U.S. government has remained deeply engaged in social engineering.60 Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal (1933–38) and Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society (1964–65) were extremely ambitious attempts at social engineering, aimed at promoting positive rights.

To understand how thoroughly progressivism has triumphed, consider how liberalism relates to the major political parties in the United States today. The Democratic Party’s ruling ideology is clearly progressive liberalism, and it acts accordingly when it controls the key levers of power in Washington. If you listen to Republicans, you might think they follow the dictates of modus vivendi liberalism. That is usually true of their rhetoric, but it is not how they govern. In office, Republicans act like Democrats. For example, the annualized growth of federal spending since 1982 grew more under Republican presidents (Reagan, Bush 41, and Bush 43) than Democrats (Clinton and Obama). It grew by 8.7 percent under Reagan between 1982 and 1985, but only 1.4 percent under Obama between 2010 and 2013.61
Reagan also signed into law in 1986 the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act, which prohibits hospitals from turning away people who come to an emergency room for treatment. It does not matter whether those individuals are American citizens, what their legal status is, or whether they can afford the treatment. In effect, this law says that health care is a human right. In fact, Reagan said as early as 1961 that “any person in the United States who requires medical attention and cannot provide it for himself should have it provided for him.”62 Further evidence that Republicans recognize this right comes from the often-repeated slogan “repeal and replace.” They understand they cannot simply eliminate the Affordable Care Act but must substitute another system that aims to provide Americans with decent health care. Republican presidents oversaw the beginnings of the Interstate Highway System, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Homeland Security. Republicans, in short, are deeply committed to the interventionist state and the extensive social engineering that comes with it.

The United States does have a political party that is genuinely committed to modus vivendi liberalism, and it is appropriately called the Libertarian Party. It is dedicated to promoting civil liberties and laissez-faire capitalism and to abolishing the welfare state. Its party platform takes dead aim at positive rights: “We seek a world of liberty; a world in which all individuals are sovereign over their own lives and no one is forced to sacrifice his or her values for the benefit of others.”63 The Libertarian Party has never won a single seat in Congress and never come close to winning the White House. Its candidate in the 2016 presidential election received 3.3 percent of the vote. Even if the Libertarians ever did gain power, they would surely find themselves prisoners of the interventionist state and its ambitious social programs.

* …all states have powerful reasons (administrative, economic, and military) to foster in their people a strong sense of nationhood, which requires extensive social engineering. This task never ends, not only because newly born citizens have to be socialized but also because some states allow large-scale immigration. Moreover, most states are multinational, which means they have to work assiduously to forge a common identity among their different groups.

At the same time, nationalism creates powerful bonds between citizens and the state, leading people to expect their government to reward their loyalty by providing for their welfare. This demand reinforces the nation-state’s inclination toward intervention, which includes, in liberal democracies, the promotion of rights. Democracy further bolsters this interventionism. Voters demand that politicians put forward policies that promote their welfare, and politicians who make bold promises and deliver on them are likely to get elected and reelected. This popular pressure causes most politicians to favor, or at least not fervently oppose, policies that promote equal opportunity and other positive rights.

* During the Cold War, for example, blatant racism against African Americans in the United States made it difficult for American policymakers to promote the U.S. political system internationally as superior to communism. As the legal historian Mary Dudziak notes, “At a time when the United States hoped to reshape the postwar world in its own image, the international attention given to racial segregation was troublesome and embarrassing.” The need to rectify this problem played an important role in propelling the civil rights movement, as Richard Nixon explicitly acknowledged when he was vice president under Eisenhower.71 In other words, “civil rights reform was in part a product of the Cold War,” because that change was “consistent with and important to the more central mission of fighting world communism.”

* When wars end, the returning soldiers often make demands on the state. For example, veterans who come from groups that have been denied the right to vote are likely to demand it. As the historian Alexander Keyssar notes: “Nearly all of the major expansions of the franchise that have occurred in American history took place either during or in the wake of wars. The historical record indicates that this was not a coincidence: the demands of both war itself and preparedness for war created powerful pressures to enlarge the right to vote. Armies had to be recruited, often from the so-called lower orders of society, and it was rhetorically as well as practically difficult to compel men to bear arms while denying them the franchise; similarly, conducting a war meant mobilizing popular support, which gave political leverage to any social groups excluded from the polity.”

* In the modern world, modus vivendi liberalism cannot survive contact with an enemy. Political liberalism today is effectively synonymous with progressive liberalism, and modus vivendi liberalism can only hope to shape progressivism, not replace it.

* If liberalism and nationalism are both powerful forces in our world, what is the relationship between them? Three points are in order. First, nationalism is at play in every country, which is reflected in the fact that we live in a world of nation-states. Liberalism, however, is not a powerful force everywhere. True liberal democracies have never made up a majority of states in the international system. Second, given nationalism’s pervasiveness, liberalism must always coexist with nationalism. It is impossible to have a liberal state that is not a nation-state and thus nationalist to its core. Liberalism, in other words, operates within the confines of nation-states. Finally, liberalism invariably loses when it clashes with nationalism.

* Thick cultures have significant cultural homogeneity, while thin cultures are more diverse. Nation-states that are largely composed of a single nation, such as Japan and Poland, have thick cultures. Those that have a core nation and minority nations, such as Canada, India, and Spain, have thin cultures.16 In other words, there is a thin national identity at the level of the state, but the core and minority nations also have their own identities.

* In essence, the real basis of nationhood is psychological, not biological, which is why Walker Connor says “the essence of a nation is intangible.”22 A nation exists when a large number of people think of themselves as members of the same unique social group with a distinct culture. In other words, a nation is a large group that considers itself a nation23 and that has tangible beliefs and practices that matter greatly for its common identity. Once nations are formed, they are exceptionally resistant to fundamental change, partly because individuals are heavily socialized into a particular culture from birth, and typically accustomed to and committed to its beliefs and practices.

* Regardless of what other nations do, people take pride in their own nation because it is a home to them. But they also think about how their nation compares with other nations, especially those they interact with frequently. Chauvinism usually follows.25 Most people think their nation is superior to others. It has special qualities that merit its being privileged over other nations. The German nationalist Johann Fichte captures this perspective with his comment that “the German alone . . . can be patriotic; he alone can for the sake of his nation encompass the whole of mankind; contrasted with him from now on, the patriotism of every other nation must be egoistic, narrow and hostile to the rest of mankind.”26 Lord Palmerston, Britain’s liberal foreign secretary in 1848, was no less chauvinistic: “Our duty—our vocation—is not to enslave, but to set free: and I may say, without any vainglorious boast, or without great offence to anyone, that we stand at the head of moral, social and political civilization. Our task is to lead the way and direct the march of other nations.”27

Unsurprisingly, this sense of specialness leads some nations to think they have been singled out by God. This belief has a rich tradition in the United States, going back to the Puritans, who believed, as many Americans have over time, that there is a special covenant between God and the United States, and that God has given it special attributes that make its people smarter and nobler than other peoples. Of course, one does not have to believe in God to believe in American exceptionalism… kind.”26 Lord Palmerston, Britain’s liberal foreign secretary in 1848, was no less chauvinistic: “Our duty—our vocation—is not to enslave, but to set free: and I may say, without any vainglorious boast, or without great offence to anyone, that we stand at the head of moral, social and political civilization. Our task is to lead the way and direct the march of other nations.”27

Unsurprisingly, this sense of specialness leads some nations to think they have been singled out by God. This belief has a rich tradition in the United States, going back to the Puritans, who believed, as many Americans have over time, that there is a special covenant between God and the United States, and that God has given it special attributes that make its people smarter and nobler than other peoples. Of course, one does not have to believe in God to believe in American exceptionalism…. Americans, as Reinhold Niebuhr noted, generally believe they are “tutors of mankind in its pilgrimage to perfection.”

* History matters greatly for all nations, although they tend to emphasize creating myths rather than getting the facts right. Nations invent heroic stories about themselves to denigrate the achievements of other nations and buttress their claim that they are special. “Chauvinist mythmaking,” as Stephen Van Evera notes, “is a hallmark of nationalism, practiced by nearly all nationalist movements to some degree.”

* Nations invariably identify with specific geographical spaces, which they treat as sacred territory.35 People form a deep emotional attachment with land they perceive as their rightful homeland. The principal aim is to establish sovereignty over that territory, which is inextricably bound up with the nation’s identity. And if any part of that imagined homeland is lost, the nation’s members are almost always committed to recovering it.

* Civic nationalism is not a useful concept. While liberal values can be a component of a nation’s culture, they cannot be the sole basis of national identity. Civic nationalism is not a meaningful notion in good part because social groups like nations invariably have a variety of deeply rooted practices and beliefs that matter greatly in their members’ daily lives. It is virtually impossible for a nation to function effectively without a multifaceted culture.88 This is why most scholars who write about American culture today emphasize nationalism as well as liberalism. The American nation, like all nations, has a rich culture, which includes a variety of practices and beliefs. This makes Americans not simply liberals but liberal nationalists. When someone self-identifies as an American, she is effectively saying she is an American nationalist.

* When relations between groups are filled with anger and hatred, tolerance and equal rights are extremely difficult to promote. Usually in such instances, the most powerful national group discriminates against the weaker group in an illiberal way. Israel’s behavior toward the Palestinians is a good example, and with the rise of Hindu extremism, India is in danger of becoming an illiberal democracy.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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