Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy. By Jonah Goldberg
With this book, Goldberg establishes himself in the first rank of modern political thinkers. In the introduction, he calls the advances of civilization in the last 300 years “the miracle,” because for 20,000 years humans everywhere lived with privation, slavery, violence, starvation, and oppression. Society was organized so the chief, the king, the “big man,” benefited from oppressing the people. He says that the development of the rule of law, free markets and democratic government allowed people for the first time to rise above the horrors of tribalism and barbarism. “The free market is the greatest anti-poverty program in all of human history. In a very real sense, it is the only anti-poverty program in all of human history.” He notes that this is not the natural state of humans, and fears we are returning to it. The introduction alone is worth the price of the book.
This “must-read” book should be read by both liberals and conservatives who want to know how their belief systems developed, as Goldberg dispassionately traces the roots of both schools of thought to Rousseau, who thought the state and the common good was the highest value and Locke, who placed the individual and individual rights as the highest value. His scholarship is excellent. Liberals will look in vain for a book that lays out the foundations they base their world view on as clearly and without bias as this. This book will make you think, which few books today, and almost no universities, do.
His critique of current policies from a conservative perspective will please liberals more than Republicans who have abandoned all principles to the “Trump is a brilliant god and everything that happens is according to his plan.”
The only place Goldberg loses me is on his Rock and Roll riff, concerning romanticism. He says, “Rock and Roll appeals to us all.” Not me. I hate rock at 72, and I hated it as a teen and young adult. When I was young I despised the Beatles and Elvis. (Though they sound good next to the current offering. At least you could understand the words.) I have always preferred American and Celtic folk ballads. However, I think his argument about romanticism applies to that music as well.
Some great quotes from the book:
“The government can improve your net worth with a check, but it cannot improve your self worth.”
“Absolute power is like getting a wish from a genie: the first thing you wish for is more wishes.” (So you never have to relinquish power.)
“Other societies relied on slavery more heavily than we did, and some were arguably crueler to their slaves (though American slavery was plenty cruel.) … The Romans, Greeks, Chinese and Egyptians were not hypocrites for keeping humans in bondage; they sincerely believed that it was natural. … Against the background of the last 10,000 years, the amazing thing about American slavery was not that it existed, but that we put an end to it.” Goldberg quotes Economist Don Boudreaux who wrote: “The fact is that slavery disappeared only as industrial capitalism emerged. And it disappeared first where industrial capitalism appeared first: Great Britain. This was no coincidence. Slavery was destroyed by capitalism.”
Read this book.