Issue #17, Summer 2010

Letters to the Editor

Letters from our readers.

Woe Bedford Falls

J. Wes Ulm’s “The Cachet of the Cutthroat” [Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, #16] provides a much needed digest of how modern evolutionary biology demonstrates that compassion, empathy, and altruism are embedded in human nature and central to human society’s survival and prosperity. As Ulm points out, Darwinism has long been corrupted by free-market fundamentalists who think it provides intellectual soundness to an ideology that, in reality, collapses under its own weight.

But we must not forget that some free-market ideologues have recognized that that their philosophy of rational self-interest may seem amoral and atomistic. Libertarians, to their credit, have shown appreciation for the positive values behind private efforts at protecting the environments or populations that bear the brunt of the free market’s “creative destruction.” And the compassionate conservative movement has championed devolved community-based solutions to social and economic programs. Progressives should not discourage or ignore these things. Instead, we must stress how government policies are necessary to complement, fortify, or underwrite private and local efforts.

Faced with new evidence, libertarians will presumably begin to incorporate biological evidence of humanity’s inborn capacity for altruism and empathy as reason to believe that human beings do not need government to ensure that we take care of one another. They might even argue that government-provided compassion crowds out the compassion provided by individuals and private entities, thus dampening the charitable character for which Americans are known. It’s a character best depicted in the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, where the charity and compassion of American civil society stands up to corporate abuse. Unfortunately, the George Baileys of today’s global finance industry can’t compete with Mr. Potter and friends. In fact, many of America’s George Baileys have tried to become like Mr. Potter themselves, leaving Bedford Falls in the dust.

After spending some time around American free-marketers, British science writer Matt Ridley argued for years that our evolved capacity for rational, self-interested cooperation obviates the need for government regulation. The hypocrisy of this argument was trumpeted in a 2007 Guardian commentary by George Monbiot when Northern Rock bank, of which Ridley was the chair, begged the UK government for a A£16 billion bailout lest it collapse.

Progressives must argue that the global economy is vastly more complex than the social structures that grew from trade activity between small agricultural communities and categorically different from the small clans in which human compassion evolved. Thus, the global economy requires laws, regulations, and human rights standards that are enforced by transparent, accountable, and democratic governments. Progressives must also promote a culture that celebrates human diversity, otherwise government policies that protect people who are different could be seen as illegitimate. We must remember that it is easy for divisiveness to be exacerbated by the shallow meme that groups such as the poor, minorities, or immigrants are “living off your tax dollars.”

The one thing progressives must recognize is that there are both self-interested and altruistic components to human nature, either of which can be strengthened or weakened depending on our public policies, the folk philosophies used to justify them, and our cultural ethos–all of which mutually reinforce one another, until they go to extremes and collapse.

Michael J. Rugnetta The Center for American Progress Washington, D.C.

Wilson’s Liabilities

Trygve Throntveit is surely right to argue that there is much to be admired, in an abstract sense, in Woodrow Wilson’s vision of a rule-based global order and that the basic concept continues to be relevant to progressive foreign policy today [“Wilson, Past and Present,” Democracy #16]. But Throntveit’s complaint that a “contemporary avatar” like Barack Obama would be reluctant to explicitly draw the linkage between his idea and Wilson’s, or that today’s liberals “treat him as the crazy uncle in the attic,” seem almost willfully blind to the deeply problematic nature of Wilson’s record.

For starters, Throntveit’s description of Wilson as possessing “apathy toward racial injustice” is considerably too kind. Jim Crow reached its apogee not in the immediate post-Civil War era but during the Wilson administration. It was under his auspices that the United States Postal Service was segregated and he accommodated southern opposition to the appointment of African-Americans to even minor offices like Registrar of the Treasury. Wilson was born in the South, and led a Southern-dominated political coalition at a time when the white South was united in its relentless hostility to the interests of blacks–he was not merely a bystander to this political culture, he was an active participant in it.

Abroad, Wilson’s racism arguably played a role in the odd fact, unmentioned by Throntveit, that Wilson’s vision of liberal peace incorporated large colonial empires. The very same Wilson whose ideas of self-determination for Europeans led him to endorse carving up the former German, Russian, and Austro-Hungarian empires into the new states of central and eastern Europe had no notion of self-determination for the people of India or Africa. Such inconsistency was widespread at the time and might be forgivable on its own terms, except that it was paired with a vision of global governance that was quite literally ahead of its time–and not in a good way. History has cast much opprobrium on Wilson’s isolationist critics for the disastrous nature of the policies they pursued in the 1930s, but with regard to Wilson the isolationist critiques have much force. After all, why should the United States have simultaneously promised to safeguard Czechoslovakia’s independence from Germany and also France’s rule over Senegal?

It’s only abstracted away from the actual situation prevailing at the time that Wilson’s vision looks appealing. And judged in that light, Wilson’s ideas are not Wilson’s at all, but rather long-held liberal notions dating back at least to Immanuel Kant’s Perpetual Peace. Philosophers like Kant deserve credit for abstractions that continue to guide our thinking today; politicians are properly judged by the consequences of their policies. And Wilson, in that light, holds up very poorly. What, after all, did U.S. intervention in the Great War accomplish? Wilson believed he was fighting and winning a “war to end all wars,” but he failed to establish his League of Nations and the peace reached at Versailles only led to a much more terrible war. Throntveit disparages Franklin Roosevelt as having betrayed Wilsonian liberalism, but it would be much better to see them as wise leaders who tried to cast implement a workable version of the idea of a rule-based global order. What’s needed today is leadership in FDR’s tradition–practical, workable steps toward an ambitious goal, not disastrous and ill-conceived leaps.

Matthew Yglesias The Center for American Progress Washington, D.C

Trygve Throntveit responds:

Matthew Yglesias raises important questions about a problematic figure. To reprise the treatment I gave one of them, in an earlier version of my piece: Yes, Wilson was racist, like most white contemporaries nationwide. But what does that statement accomplish, besides making him comfortably alien to enlightened moderns? None of the policies Wilson cared about most–the New Freedom, international mediation, intervention in Europe–were racially motivated. Their explanations lie elsewhere. Meanwhile, we learn more by studying his destructive indifference to the injustices he permitted than by insisting he cared more about race than he did.

“Self-determination” explains even less about Wilson. He rarely uttered the phrase publicly, and privately lamented that such a fissiparous principle was eclipsing his integrative vision. Wilson supported particular ethno-nationalist movements only when he foresaw them enhancing postwar stability. He (wrongly) believed the mandate system would maintain such stability while eventually dismantling colonialism, and thus subordinated African and Asian nationalism–and Irish, and German–to the peace he judged more important.

That judgment can be criticized. But implying that Wilson’s policies caused World War II is ahistorical. Hitler’s rise was hardly foreordained at Versailles. U.S. participation in the League of Nations might have altered the climate that spawned him by mitigating the Depression and the protectionism it engendered. Nor was such participation an “ill-conceived leap” destined to fail. Wilson himself prevented it when, stroke-impaired, he ordered Democrats to reject membership on compromise terms. Yes, Roosevelt secured American leadership of a longer-lasting organization. But it seems inconsistent to praise Roosevelt’s “workable steps toward an ambitious goal”–including enshrining great-power privilege in a Security Council–while blaming Wilson for the persistence of empires, dismissing the organizational groundwork he laid, and ignoring the internationalist alternatives he proposed simply because, unlike Kant, he held office and a professorship.

 

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Issue #17, Summer 2010
 

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