Intro. [Recording date: June 5, 2018.]
Russ Roberts: My guest is Richard Reinsch II.... Our topic for today is a recent essay of yours, Richard, where you review Jonah Goldberg's book, The Suicide of the West, which, Jonah was a guest recently on EconTalk to talk about the book. And I thought that essay might make a useful jumping off point for a conversation on The Enlightenment, the state of America, the state of liberty. But I want to first let you tell our audience a little bit about Law and Liberty--the website and the podcast that you host, Liberty Law Talk.
Richard Reinsch: Well, thanks, Russ, for having me on EconTalk. You are the standard in terms of serious interview formats online, and so, when I started Liberty Law Talk, I wanted to, in some way, try and duplicate your success. I tried to follow a lot of your interviewing style, and I've sort of crossed that with Bryan Lamb--I attempt to try to triangulate my own style between the two of you. But, Law and Liberty, I started at the beginning of 2012, and it was sort of my thinking and position that a lot of arguments and rhetoric and ideas on the Right in America were stale. And I don't exempt anyone from that: I think judicial sphere, economics, thinking about institutions, thinking about government power, Federalism--I thought we needed sort of a new and fresh approach, and hopefully some controversial thinking that would push the dial a little bit. And so, Michael Greve was our first big writer, and he had the book, The Upside-Down Constitution, which was sort of a harkening back to a much older model of Federalism, not sort of necessarily just the rights of states but something like Justice Joseph Story, John Marshall, Alexander Hamilton, sort of emphasizing the national commercial aspect of the American Federal government; and that creating space for states to compete within that realm. So, that's a long way of saying I thought we needed new approaches and new thinking, and I wanted to use the tremendous gift that Liberty Fund afforded, not just financially but also the intellectual capital that Liberty Fund has generated over the decades to sort of be something that I could rely upon in putting together, you know, writers and ideas and books that we could talk about on the website. So, we are--we are known as a legal site; but we are a lot more than law. We are policy, we are legal history, we are, I think economics--political economy--and we are open to a wide range of perspectives, I think, from the center--primarily from the center all the way to you know, sort of very conservative thinking; and we're trying to be the online conjugation of Liberty Fund, which is a conversation online amongst people who take liberty and responsibility very seriously. [?] that's sort of an unending topic of discussion. Within that, Liberty Law Talk is sort of my attempt to preview or think about serious books, serious articles and essays people are writing in a range of fields; and I just try and introduce their thinking, push back a little bit, and see where the conversation goes: sort of like what you do on EconTalk.
Russ Roberts: And, just as an example, a recent guest I thought it was Gordon Wood on Jefferson and Adams--was it Adams?
Richard Reinsch: It was--a new book on Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, and their rivalry, their friendship; and, you know, sort of who best explains America. They each have different facets and assets, I think of the American mind and American practice and so it's Gordon Wood. It's one of our best historians of the American Founding.
Russ Roberts: We'll put links up to all of that.
Russ Roberts: Let's start with our conversation. I want to start with the Enlightenment. This is an area that I'm increasingly interested in--mainly because I'm pretty ignorant about it, so I'm trying to educate myself. If you'd asked me, 'What's the Enlightenment,' I'd say: Well, it goes back to John Locke and other philosophical figures. Locke emphasized natural law, private property, the rule of law. And that, combined with a respect for reason, engendered scientific revolution and technology; and the rest is history. Capitalism takes off, democracy takes off, and the combination transforms the lives of most of the people living in the West. That's sort of, I would call, the romantic story of the Enlightenment. Is there something missing from that story?
Richard Reinsch: Well, I think--you know, my thinking in this was heavily influenced by Gertrude Himmelfarb, who had a book that basically argued the Enlightenment is a series of tales. So, the question becomes: Which Enlightenment are we discussing? And what was its project? What were its goals? And so we have a German Enlightenment, we have a French Enlightenment, we have a Scottish Enlightenment--which you've written about, Adam Smith. Many people would argue there's an American Enlightenment, which is primarily about political science and political thought. But, within that, I think the crucial questions that emerge are--that I'm interested in--are: What pre-existed them? What contributed and shaped what they did? What were their goals? And, who is within the circle of the Enlightenment? And so, that, to me, sparked a lot of questions. And then, of course, there are darker aspects of the Enlightenment. And so, I consider myself also a student of, you might characterize as dissident studies--which would be thinkers like Dostoyevsky, or, in the 20th century Leo Strauss or Alexander Solzhenitsyn; Whittaker Chambers in America, and others who sort of looked at the romantic story of the Enlightenment: the reason, the science, the progress, the liberalism--all of this sort of business--and said, 'Well, this also introduces an enormous amount of power, hubris, arrogance, and inability to self-limit on the part of man. And that man's mind starts to constitute reality itself.' And, what sort of dialectic, or what sort process does that introduce into politics and the social order of man's affairs? So, I think that's how I come at this. And that's the basis that I worked from when I reviewed Jonah Goldberg's book: which is sort of a paeon to I think what he draws as a very narrow conception of the Enlightenment.
Russ Roberts: Well, you talked about, you made a mention of something about what came before the Enlightenment. And I think, for those of us who are not well-informed, the general idea, if you had asked me to describe what came before the Enlightenment: Well, we know what came before. It was the Dark Ages. It was a bunch of monks in hooded robes shuffling along dark corridors, chanting. And occasionally transcribing old, lifeless manuscripts. And then suddenly--let's see--I'm going to see if I can quote this correctly. It's from Alexander Pope. It goes something like this: 'Nature and its laws lay hid from sight. Then, Newton was and all was light.' Something like that. That's--I apologize for not--I might be off a word or two. But the idea that Newton, and that's late, in the late 17th century at this point, that Newton in the last half of the 17th century and others kicked off the Scientific Revolution, turned against--so goes the story; it's not, of course, true--but turned against religion and superstition; and as a result modernity was born. And, of course, that simplified story is missing a lot of pieces.
Richard Reinsch: Yeah. I think Newton, Francis Bacon--there's obviously the political side of this. You mention one thinker, John Locke. I think this idea that you can somehow--which did prove true, in many respects--that you could bring nature under control and make it serve human purposes; and the famous phrase from Bacon, 'Science can be brought in the relief of man's estate.' And you can start to see material progress happen. And I don't--I don't want to give the impression that I'm counter-Enlightenment or that I'm anti-Enlightenment in that regard. I think what we should be open to--even when we say that process and we think about who the human person is, is--when you begin to unlock that, there is power working; there is will working. Part of the Enlightenment, part of the explanation that's given for the power the science is you no longer think about formal and final cause--which had been such a tremendous part of Aristotle's thinking and a part of the pre-modern mind leading into early modernity. And you strip away final cause, and you are just focused on this imminent process of what you are doing--which, you know, this experiment, observation, production, thinking about your results and what you are going to do with them. The question then becomes purpose. And, what's it for? What's it all about? Who is it serving? Is it serving mankind? Is it serving a particular group, or a particular group in power? I mean, you know, one way of thinking about this is Alexander Solzhenitsyn's formulation, that these gifts of science and technology coming out of the Enlightenment are also a profound trial of the human will. And, can you actually use them ultimately for the relief of man's estate, or do they get used as tools of power against other people? And I think the reason why we're wary[?] now of technology and progress and we look at sort of an AI [artificial intelligence] revolution and we look at other--the biotech revolution--as we've seen these things used horrifically. We've seen the nuclear weapon: The nuclear bomb defined in effect the 20th century as this grip of terror that could destroy the world. Mankind created that through modern science. That wasn't religion; that wasn't superstition; that wasn't bigotry. That was science. And, we have to come to terms with that aspect now, I think; and that's sort of this idea of a post-modern conservative reflection on the fool[?] goods of human nature and sort of conjugating that with what we've produced through science and technology.
Russ Roberts: I was doing some reading for this conversation and I came across a quote from Thomas Jefferson that three people that you just happened to mention a minute ago--Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, and John Locke--Jefferson called, he said something like 'the three greatest people who have ever lived, without question.' They are the three people you'd want to have dinner with. If you could. If you could bring them back to life. And, helpfully for me, they all speak--some kind of English. Not exactly my kind, but something I could probably has some understanding of at dinner in that conversation.
Russ Roberts: But, I want to come back to Solzhenitsyn, because, as fate would have it--I just want to mention this to listeners, anyway--I read Solzhenitsyn in my 20s. I read a whole bunch of Solzhenitsyn: at least 3 of his novels, all the Gulag, August 1914, The Oak and the Calf. I was a huge, huge fan. And then I didn't read him for 35, 40 years. And I recently picked up what was once called The First Circle, which was an acclaimed novel of his that's now been reissued under the title In the First Circle, which he had--in the original publication, he had self-censored. He had taken out large chunks of it to make sure it could get published. And recently, I think in the last decade, it was reissued the way he wrote it originally--or at least the way he wanted to write it--and translated it into English. And, I'm about a third of the way through it. Of course, like all Russian books, it's extremely long. It's 700-something pages. But it is magnificent. I'd forgotten what an extraordinarily insightful writer he is, what an insightful student of human nature, how funny he is in dark places--in the Gulag and in the prison camps. And so, I want to put a plug in for that book, at least a third of the way through. If I change my mind when I finish--I think I will finish it--if I change my mind I will let listeners know. But so far it is--I'm really so glad--
Richard Reinsch: And I'm glad you mentioned it. We're coming up on the 40th anniversary of Solzhenitsyn's famous Harvard address, which is seen as the moment when Solzhenitsyn sort of goes from this freedom fighter that Western--
Russ Roberts: I'd call him beloved dissident--
Richard Reinsch: A beloved dissident. And he goes from being someone everyone's looking to and applauding, and he's kind of a celebrity; and then he comes to Harvard and he says something like: The West is lost in its own abstractions; and it's lost in it's own purposelessness; and it seems to be committing some sort of suicide in the face of Communist aggression. You no longer no what you're about, is basically what he tells them. You're lost in materialism, your secularism has sort of cut you off from the sources of your civilization. So, Solzhenitsyn sort of becomes a much more difficult figure. And, in fact, when I talk about Solzhenitsyn sometimes, particularly among Russian historians, they--you find them becoming a little more skeptical of him and what he is about. But, the books that you mention--one of the titles in that series is The Red Wheel. And, what he meant by that is, nothing of this was inevitable in the sense of a Communist revolution in Russia. It's through human choice. And it's through human beings making a choice that the Red Wheel begins to turn more and more and more. And there's ultimately no way, at a certain point, to stop the grip of the Soviet Union or of Russia and communist tyranny. It's sort of inevitable--not inevitable, but it's an amazing reflection on human freedom turning against human nature and denying who we are as human persons, and leading to that process of destruction that then results in Russia for the next 70 years.
Russ Roberts: And you can argue--at least, my memory of his writing and certainly in the 200-or-so pages I've read so far in The First Circle, he's constantly balancing--his characters are constantly having to cope with the fact that their life is a lie: Communism is evil; it's not designed to improve humanity. And yet at the same time, many of them are holding onto the potential for Communism to redeem humanity, partly because that's all they've got. It's the only myth they've ever gotten to explore. And yet, here's Solzhenitsyn relentlessly, sardonically exposing this dual paradigm that doesn't hold together. He's really a giant. The other part of that--that Harvard address--you called it 'famous.' It's not famous any more, I don't think. It's famous to you, and it's famous to me; but most people, I'm sure, listening don't know of it. I would suspect that the modal number of books that my audience has read by Solzhenitsyn is zero--is my guess. I'd love to be wrong. If you've read something by him, it might be A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Which was an important book--
Richard Reinsch: Yes. I send that to my interns every summer.
Russ Roberts: But it's not the masterpiece, or masterpieces he came to write as time passed. But I want to talk about the--oh, the other point I was going to make about that Harvard address is that it also dealt a lot, if I remember correctly, with nationalism and a love of Russia, that was very alien to Americans. And I think remains extremely--makes a lot of Americans uncomfortable, especially with the rise of Putin and the current situation there.
Russ Roberts: But I want to take us in a different direction. That's all preamble. I want to try to respond to something you said about human choice and human nature, and [?] embrace of technology; and that we don't have a purpose. And I think, I'm going to be--you're a conservative; I'm more of a libertarian. And I'm going to bring out my Hayekian side here, which is not conservative. And, the Hayekian side of me is all about emergent order in this conversation. It says: We don't make choices as a society. We don't make choices as groups. We make choices as individuals. And, we're all confronted with the chaos of the world around us. We have the options open to us. We have the products that we can buy, the ways that we can spend our time, the people we can choose to interact with. And, what freedom is about in that enterprise is: it's whatever you make of it. And, for one person it might be the freedom to worship in a church that's meaningful to that person. For another, it's to pursue a hobby and be extremely good at it. For someone else, it's to build a business and make a lot of money. For someone else, it's to do a lot of volunteering. And the result of all those choice is the world we see around us, not some individual's will, not the will of the state or a particular politician. And so, when I look at the--so, I'll play pessimist just to stay on your page. If I say, 'Well, yeah, you mentioned the atomic--'
Richard Reinsch: You're being the optimist.
Russ Roberts: What?
Richard Reinsch: You're being more optimistic.
Russ Roberts: I'm not sure. No, I'm not sure at all, actually. Let's put the atomic bomb to the side and let's accept the possibility that artificial intelligence or even more trivially, social media and smart phones, etc., are not good for us. Let's suppose that's true. I'm open-minded about it. I think we're going to see a massive cultural response; we're starting to see it now a little bit. I think we'll see a bigger one. But, you could argue that they're not healthy; they lead to alienation. They are purposeless. And, that's our choice. Yeah: that's up to us. We don't--no one's forced it down our throat. It's not inevitable. We can walk away from it if we choose to. We evidently have trouble doing that. But, it's not like there's a technology wheel that's rolling forward, crushing all of us, that's being steered by--just to pick a random name, say, Elon Musk, or Mark Zuckerberg. They are just appealing to the deeply-rooted parts of our human nature for attention, and for leisure, and for pursuit of things to do with our time. And, that's just the way it is. But that's not the way you told the story. How do you react to that?
Richard Reinsch: Well, what I would say is things are getting better and worse at the same time. And, we should always keep that in mind. I'm not a reactionary or someone who is against technology. I don't want to give that impression. The point about the purpose is, this is sort of a basic contention of modern science, that we're [?] worried about purpose, in the sense of what nature is about and what we're doing with it. We're focusing on what we can do, what we can predict and then how we can apply science, apply technology. And, just sort of thinking about what problems that might institute. On the questions of technology, just think about social media, the smartphones by which we access it for the most part: I think there are good and bad sides in that; and I wouldn't--even thinking about my own children using the phones. One of my sons stays on the phone way too much. And yet, at the same time, there are a lot of good things I think he's also been exposed to there. So, it's not necessarily--I think where I'm coming down. I think, though, your point--I mean, my response to it is that this is what people do; there's real process, etc. I think that is probably too much to ignore human dependability, and the fact that we are connected, and the fact that things are working at multiple levels: social, political, economic, cultural. Things are being defined through a force of argument, through force of law, force of will, and shaped [?]. Liberalism is not immune from this. Liberalism has an effect to be implanted by law, and will have to displace certain other--and did displace--other modes of activity in human interaction, to forge a new realm of networks of commerce and political liberty and freedom. And I'm not opposed to that. I'm just saying: Nothing is immune. Nothing is immune from imperfection, from problems, from errors. And we have to be aware of that and think about the seeds of destruction within something good. Like Liberalism. Like modern technology. And try to account for it. It's not--we can't get involved in Just-So stories or the arch of history or things like that. We need to be aware to the problems and dynamics of human freedom. And what our choices do, and what they unintentionally can lead to.
Russ Roberts: Why don't you define Liberalism as you see it? You used it a couple of times. What does that term mean to you?
Richard Reinsch: Yeah. Well, I see Liberalism ultimately as an attempt by human beings to protect themselves from certain power claims, primarily through government, or actors using the government, say, to inflict, say, a religious or various political ideologies on people. And so, that's good. But, I think one question is: What does Liberalism depend on? And I think Liberalism depends on a view of the human person that is filled with an infinite longing, with a need for transcendence, with a need to know the truth about ourselves. And, so Liberalism as much it is, I think as I prefer, I would argue, a neutral set of ideas, maybe, at best conceived, a neutral set of ideas to protect human liberty, also, I think is built on a conception of the human person. That is, working through the full range, both of a great philosophy, but also the Jewish/Christian tradition when we think about the human person. And so it's--it's a complex dance. It's an art, I think, to sort of balance Liberalism. It's also, it's civilization of human beings that are also open to the good, and open to the truth about ourselves, and we can't sort of cut that process off, I think, with sort of a regnant[?] secularism or something that, you know, would distract us or take us away from those deep questions.
Russ Roberts: So, your definition of Liberalism is more what I would call something like classical liberalism crossed with some conservative flavors about transcendence, human nature, and--
Richard Reinsch: Yeah. I mean, I think what I'm saying is that Liberalism can't go on its own accord. It's not a self-sufficient body of ideas that doesn't require a lot of tributary sources. That it finds--that are uncomfortable to negotiate, but yet are there because human beings are full of potential, and full of a lot of difficult truths that we have to sort of conjugate and account for.
Russ Roberts: So, modern listeners would respond--I think many modern listeners--would respond to that with the following claim. And this is going to jumble a few things together. But, if you said to me, 'What's the modern religion of America?' I'd say it's not Christianity; it's not Judaism; it's not Islam. It's not a belief in atheism. It's--I would call it self-actualization.
Richard Reinsch: Yeah. No, I don't disagree with you on that.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. That's our credo. Our credo is: The world is here for--the world is my oyster. The world is here for me to explore and to serve me. It's for me to find out what I can get from it. And I do that by all kinds of things. I learn some things, and I get some skills, and I have a job and a career. And, my inner life is up to me. It's none of your business. And, to pretend that our wellbeing depends--now I'm going to step back philosophically--the connection that it claims that our wellbeing depends on those tributaries--I just--I'll play, maybe I'm playing Jonah Goldberg here. 'What do I need all that for? We've got a good country.' We've got a bunch of rules that have served us pretty well for 200-plus years. We have a mixed economy. It's not really too free market, but it's not Socialist, either. It's at risk of drifting in one direction or another, perhaps. But, we have a grab-bag of an economy. We have a grab bag of a political order. And--it's pretty good. We've got the highest standard of living, you could argue, in human history. You can debate how widespread it is, how deeply it's enjoyed. But, we talk about now and then on EconTalk. But: It's going pretty well. What are you worried about?
Richard Reinsch: In a way--I mean, where to begin? I don't dispute you. And I think this is true--it's also the case we have an America--and these numbers don't change. We think about the rise of the so-called Nones--that is, people who don't identify with any religion.
Russ Roberts: N-o-n-e-s.
Richard Reinsch: N-o-n-e-s. Which I also think is just people who had a very nominal identification with a religious faith and are just--and there's no real social pressure any more, so they are just things that--
Russ Roberts: [?] stand off.
Richard Reinsch: --'That's who I am. I'm a None.' But then there's this other group, 35-40% of Americans, and I don't think this has really changed in the last few decades--for whom an institutional religious presence in their lives is quite consequential. And is an integrating aspect of their life. So, we have to--we are a complicated country. We are a very complicated country. We have to sort of account for all of that. But, my point is: What is our alienation? What does our alienation point to? What does, sort of this incredibly wealthy country, incredible opportunities, and yet, sort of, in another sense, immense sadness and anxiety--my chief evidence would be antidepressant medications and antidepressant subscriptions--how do you account for that? And I think it is, there is something like there is a longing of the human person. There is trouble for the human person. The Biblical saying is the sparks fly upward. That so marks man's path in this world. Where does all does that come from? Why are we not content with our success with our material accomplishments and achievements--which are incredible by any standard of human history? And I think that is something like: Mankind is an animal, but also a spiritual, transcendent being. And we can't sort of ignore--as Tocqueville would say, 'When you ignore the soul, in its requirements, big trouble comes rushing in.' And he--well, all the things that Tocqueville was fearful of; I won't go into a Tocqueville seminar. But, somehow, as if this could somehow be ignored by late democratic man. I find--part of it is sort of historically deficient. But it's also sort of our increasing refusal to ask ourselves, 'What does it actually mean to be free? What does it actually mean to be autonomous? What's the point of all of this?' And I don't think we are ultimately satisfied with, as Leo Strauss would say, 'the joyless quest for joy.' [More to come, 30:06]