Richard Reinsch on the Enlightenment, Tradition, and Populism
Jun 18 2018

Suicide20of20the20West.jpg Richard Reinsch, editor of Law and Liberty and the host of the podcast Liberty Law Talk, talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the Enlightenment. Topics discussed include the search for meaning, the stability of liberalism, the rise of populism, and Solzhenitsyn's indictment of Western values from his Harvard Commencement Address of 1978.

RELATED EPISODE
Jonah Goldberg on The Suicide of the West
Jonah Goldberg of National Review talks about his latest book, Suicide of the West, with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. Goldberg argues that both capitalism and democracy are at risk in the current contentious political environment. He argues that we take...
EXPLORE MORE
Related EPISODE
Tales of Enlightenment
Is American culture locked in a death spiral? Have we misused the gifts of the Enlightenment? These are some of the questions EconTalk host Russ Roberts invited this week's guest to explore. Richard Reinsch, host of the Liberty Law Talk...
EXPLORE MORE
Explore audio highlights, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.

READER COMMENTS

SaveyourSelf
Jun 18 2018 at 3:44pm

This discussion with Richard Reinsch comes across as one very long winded apology for the use of force through the State to distribute his beliefs–which he called myths. Russ Roberts characterization of him as conservative was helpful. My overall impression was that he is laying out the foundation for the argument of why the State should ration resources in line with his considered opinions. Freedom was a necessary sacrifice. Necessary for satisfaction of the soul. Failing to do so clearly leads people to use antidepressants. I will devote hours to disciplining his thoughts when the transcript is published, but for now, it is enough to say that he is no friend of freedom.

Robert Fenerty
Jun 18 2018 at 8:48pm

I did not find Mr Reinsch’s arguments to be particularly compelling. I chalk that up (at least partially) to my not having read his book. Also, these arguments require a degree of scholarship and intellectual shorthand that I lack.

In any case, I’m glad that Russ pushed back on the whole “climate change is caused by liberals and we need more invisible friends in our lives” bit. I wish they could have unpacked that a bit more.

Mr. Reinsch seemed to imply that reduced church attendance led to increased interest in LGBTQ rights, and that this was a marker of a debauched society (my words, not his). I’d argue instead that a more enlightened society is better able to unpack and reconsider behavior that was long considered transgressive. The perversity is the way people with any differences have been historically repressed and abused.

Eric
Jun 19 2018 at 11:05am

Russ Roberts: … 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.

A crucial piece that is often missed is that this “story”, as Russ alludes, is “not, of course, true”.  Newton did not turn “against religion”. On the contrary, Newton was a Christian who studied nature because he was a Christian. This is true of nearly all those credited as leaders of the Scientific Revolution. (In fact, Newton wrote as much or more on theological considerations as he did on the study of physical nature.)

‘Nature and its laws lay hid from sight.’ Yet it was only in the west that people went looking for those “laws … hid from sight” in that way we now call the Scientific Revolution. They did so there because of the Judeo-Christian culture. They believed:

Creation is the intentional work of a Creator.
The Creator acted with purpose according to reason.
“Men became scientific because the expected law in nature and they expected law in nature because they believed in a lawgiver.” -C.S. Lewis
Because humans have been created in God’s image, it is reasonable to think that we could comprehend the laws and patterns the rational Creator has placed into the design of nature.
Francis Bacon and others promoted the idea that God has provided revelation through “two books”, both the book of collected special revelation in Scripture and also the “book” of nature.
Since they regarded nature as distinct from God (unlike pantheism), it was not sacrilegious to study it and see how it worked. On the contrary, it is quite appropriate for humans to use their God given abilities to understand the revelation of God’s design that can be found in the book of nature.

The theologian and scientist Johannes Kepler, who discovered the laws of planetary motion, expressed these ideas in this way.

“I was merely thinking God’s thoughts after him. Since we astronomers are priests of the highest God in regard to the book of nature, it benefits us to be thoughtful, not of the glory of our minds, but rather, above all else, of the glory of God.”

and

“The chief aim of all investigations of the external world should be to discover the rational order which has been imposed on it by God, and which he revealed to us in the language of mathematics.”

Since their search for laws was vindicated by great success, we now take for granted the idea that nature itself is governed by laws we can write down, often as surprisingly small and elegant mathematical equations. However, when such a perspective was first brought to China by Jesuit missionaries it seemed foolish in the extreme to their way of thinking (cf. God’s Undertaker; Has Science Buried God? by John C. Lennox, p. 20).

Even the earlier “dark” ages were not “dark” in the way the enlightenment story is commonly told. See How Dark Were the Dark Ages?

Then where does this mythical story come from that we “got science” by becoming enlightened enough to turn “against religion”?

This story is the Warfare Myth of religion vs. science. It was an attempt to rewrite history that was birthed and promoted by two authors in the late 19th century, but it has since been thoroughly debunked by serious historians. See a 5 minute video on the myth’s origin by two science historians.

The idea that the Enlightenment gave us science by rejecting religion is a myth that in reality has matters exactly backwards. The Judeo-Christian foundation of the west gave birth to the serious search to uncover God’s laws that were anticipated but “lay hid from sight”.

Mike F
Jun 21 2018 at 2:04pm

Matthew Stewart has a different and interesting take on many of your points in a book called Nature’s God.  It approaches the Enlightenment from the perspective of the American founders and proposes that there is a pretty slim difference between Newton’s God and the pantheism more or less spelled out by Spinoza (and atheism for that matter.)

As Russ dives further into his Enlightenment series as he mentioned during the podcast, I hope he is able to include Matthew Stewart in his guest lineup.

Adam
Jun 19 2018 at 11:52am

Interesting conversation, but seemed to not quite get the issues sorted out about “how individualism errs”.  Enlightenment poses humans as individuals collected within a state.  Key enlightenment issue is maintaining individual freedom versus the state.  While early enlightenment saw a multilevel civil society with federal governments, the modern system seems dominated by two types–the self-interested, self-serving individual and the national or regional state (like the EU).  Civil society’s pretty much disappeared, replaced by the superficial identities of political party and sports teams.  Families disintegrate into households.

Libertarians see no problem with the modern structure.  For libs, humans are essentially individuals.  Groupings such as clubs, churches and families are accidental, transitory relationships and not essential or fundamental.  The big deal for libs is how to maintain freedom of the individual in the presence of an evermore powerful state.

Conservatives recognize conflicts between the freedom and the state but also see human beings as social beings.  Humans are essentially social.  They are not individuals.  Each human is created by two entities, egg and sperm.  Each is born into the world by a mother.  Every human is protected and raised for several or many years by other human  beings, mostly pairs of mother and father.  We define ourselves in reference to other human beings–where we grew up, where we work, where we play and if and where we worship.

Adam Smith knew this, that humans see themselves in the mirror of those they love and care about.  Smith understood that humans are centrally motivated to do those things that bring them the “love” of others.  In the Smith view, freedom of choice and action seems instrumental, and not a final end.  Freedom allows individuals to aspire and do those things which might bring them the social acceptance and love that we all care about.

The liberal enlightenment view pushes aside the essential social aspects of human beings.  Smith’s first book is largely forgotten while the second book and “invisible hand” is the bible of the global state.  After Rousseau and Nietzsche, moderns ideals are all about the individual and the state.

What’s wrong with that essential dichotomy–the individual versus the state?  It ignores the social essence of human beings. People long for social relationships.  Reduced to transitory and incidental relationships, life as a modern is joyless, even depressing.  Travels, food, is and freedom leave moderns unfulfilled, lost in isolated angst.   Such angst is debilitating, deadly.  We the results in rising use of antidepressants and rising rates of suicide.

David J Driver
Jun 19 2018 at 1:29pm

Reinsch just sounded confused. I find when someone says “The question is illogical” is just a deflection tactic. I don’t think he gave a straightforward answer to most of the questions leaving me to believe that he is still trying to figure out what he is trying to say. Other than he thinks it is bad that there are people who are not patriotic or religious, I don’t understand what the problems with those two items are.

Jim
Jun 19 2018 at 1:37pm

i am very grateful I grew up in America. But I am surprised Russ so easily said he was proud to be an American and patriotism is great. I don’t think I am a better person because I grew up in America – but grateful.

The racism Russ was decrying is a direct result of thinking the greatness of America means an American is better than a citizen of another country.

 

Urstoff
Jun 19 2018 at 2:43pm

This seemed like fairly bad armchair social theorizing on Reinsch’s part. We live in an alienated society? How do we know that? Because anti-depressants are increasingly used. No consideration, of course, of the myriad other reasons of the increased usage of anti-depressants. People are trying to fill the religious shaped hole in their beings. How do we know that? The increasing prominence of transgenderism. Uh, what?

Cynthia
Jun 19 2018 at 7:00pm

What I find compelling about Econtalk is how often I am pushed to consider different points of views and question many of my long-held ideas. However, after listening to this episode yesterday, I feel disappointed.

Admittedly, I live in California and do not have a lot of exposure to conservative religious views. In particular, I can’t shake the ick feeling I have about how Russ and Richard discussed the return to family and return to religion, not to mention the apparent correlation between less religion and more transgender people.

I am 20 years younger than Russ, a female entrepreneur and parent to school-age children, so maybe I have a different interpretation of what was meant by the return to the family. Looking back on the episode, I feel as if Richard and Russ were speaking in some sort of code. Russ didn’t push him to explain what was meant so maybe there is a general understanding of what those phrases mean in conservative circles? I read “return to family” to suggest that I should take on a traditional female role in my family, which is what my mother had to endure, and sounds pretty awful to me. I invite both Russ, Richard, or any other listeners, to inform me of what is meant by the return to family and what that would look like if realized. I hope I am wrong and just out of touch with current conservative views.

I would have appreciated it if Russ had more sincerely pushed back on Richard to explain his ideas more clearly. At times it felt as if I was listening to a private conversation. Also, I didn’t find the intellectual talk about myths and illogical questions compelling.

BTW, the new site looks great!

SaveyourSelf
Jun 20 2018 at 8:23am

Cynthia,

I can’t speak to what Richard Reinsch meant when he said “return to family”, but I found something related that may give you and I some insight in the absence of his clarification.

Both Russ and Richard discussed Alexander Solzhenitsyn during this conversation, and in particular his Harvard speech of 1978. Russ posted a helpful link to it and I read it. Interestingly and importantly, Richard Reinsch’s stance was a mirror of every position Alexander Solzhenitsyn took in that speech. So Solzhenitsyn may give us a window into understanding Reinsch.

Solzhenitsyn in his speech referenced a book by Igor Shafarevich called The Socialist Phenomenon. This was important to the speech because Alexander Solzhenitsyn was blasting Western—and particularly American—society as being materialistic and non-religious, among other things. But he clarified that, no matter how bad he disliked the West, he was not advocating Socialism to replace it.

If your still following me I’ve almost gotten to the point :p

In The Socialist Phenomenon that Solzhenitsyn referenced, Igor Shafarevich lays out the following “basic principles of socialist states.” 1) The abolition of private property 2) The abolition of the family 3) The abolition of religion.

The abolition of private property I understood right away. The abolition of the family took me overnight to puzzle out out. So here is the crux of the family and why it matters to socialism. It’s an extension of the private property point. Follow this chain of questions: What can you–the individual–own and therefore ration? Can you own your house? Can you own your skills and what those skills produce? Can you own your own body? Can you own your own thoughts? And, finally, can you own your own children? That is, can you, as the parent, make rationing decisions for your children. Because that’s what socialism is. A non-market–ie. centralized–rationing system. It’s all about who gets to decide.

Thus, I think the point about the family is not the particular shape of it. It’s not a question of if you work or you stay home and do dishes. It is a question of, do you get to decide the form and shape that your family will take, or does someone else.

:O

I still don’t have any idea why socialism cannot tolerate religion.

Eric Christoph
Jun 23 2018 at 6:39am

Socialism cannot tolerate religion because admitting there is a higher power than the state removes the authority of the state to decide what is “good” and what is “bad”. And that, of course, limits their authority to decide what is good for you.

Without God and Family there is no freedom, which is what the socialists want.

Jim
Jun 24 2018 at 8:21pm

[Comment removed pending confirmation of email address. Email the webmaster@econlib.org to request restoring this comment and your comment privileges. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.–Econlib Ed.]

David Chisholm
Jun 19 2018 at 7:13pm

I was surprised that with so much talk about the enlightenment there was narry a word spoken about the humanism?

If I understood your guest correctly he was claiming that the lack of a shared value system left individuals valueless and alienated.  In the real world, his supposed curative for this, organized religion, typically cures ones alienation by teaching you to alienate others.  He should consider secular humanism as an alternative with a world view which says that reason and science are the best ways to understand the world around us, and that dignity and compassion should be the basis for how you act toward someone else.

I think Secular Humanism IS the value system of the majority,  its just that they never name it or tell its story.  Perhaps if we did our kids would not fall victim to heroic stories from ISIS feed to them on the internet.

We HAVE a good story, we just need to tell it more. We are engaged in the eternal struggle against civilizations twin foes of ignorance and want.    No matter how hard the struggle gets, we ought never to sacrifice our values.  The ends won’t matter if we stop valuing each others dignity or treating each other with compassion.

Note to Russ:  Once one starts reading Gulag Archipelago,  one has a duty to finish it and bear witness for all those millions who suffered at the hands of Utopians.

 

 

 

 

Alcuin
Jun 20 2018 at 4:46pm

Wouldn’t most people think that the renaissance came before the enlightenment?

Matt
Jun 21 2018 at 7:38am

I usually really like topics like this on Econtalk but this episode was a little disappointing, Richard lacked arguments to back his claims and analysis. I also think Richard got away to easy with his implicit conspiracy theories like climate change is not real (and some kind of liberal conspiracy), and that the fight for equal rights for transgender people were an expression of a morally debasing society.
Too much like Fox News for my taste:)

 

John Bicknell
Jun 21 2018 at 3:43pm

Note to Russ:  Early in this interview (before 20-min Mark), you made a comment about doing more exploratory interviews like this about The Enlightenment & other such topics.  I’d like to give an enthusiastic “Yes” vote for this.  It is so difficult to parse considered & thoughtful opinion from bluster.

Perhaps such interviews could be loosely bundled as a themed mini-project — sort of like you did w Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations several years ago.  In this case, perhaps the series would be unbounded as such explorations do not fit nicely into a discreet number of episodes.

I’d love to hear long form interviews w experts from all over The Enlightenment & philosophical landscape.  Thanks for everything you have done & continue to do for civil discourse, Russ.

SaveyourSelf
Jun 23 2018 at 8:34am

I couldn’t sleep last night after arguing with my father over welfare for hours. On the plus side, I think I figured out why Socialism can’t tolerate religion. And this discovery might also explain Reinsch’s concern over the decline of religion in society. Maybe.

 

In The Socialist Phenomenon by Igor Shafarevich “the basic principles of socialist states” are 1) The abolition of private property 2) The abolition of the family 3) The abolition of religion.

In spite of Shafarevich’s insightful summary, neither he nor I could explain why socialist operate that way. In his conclusion, the mathematician throws up his hands and hypothesizes that it comes from some animal instinct—probably subconscious. On page 295 he writes, “For the very reason that the basic driving force of socialist ideology is subconscious and emotional, reason and rational discussion of facts have always played only a subordinate role in it. The socialist doctrines are reconciled with contradictions with an ease reminiscent of “prelogical,” primitive thinking, which functions outside any framework of consistency, as described by Levy-Bruhl. They are equally unconcerned with the fact that socialist conclusions are radically at odds with experience. Most astonishing of all is that these contradictions do not diminish the impact of the doctrine in the least.”

In other words, he didn’t know. And neither did I, but now I think I do.  The problem was that we were looking at the system’s second and third order effects. The trick is to look at the first order—the level of organization.

The key to the whole problem is justice. Adam Smith proposed that justice was the foundation of society. He proposed that without justice, society could not even exist. But, interestingly, he didn’t want that to be the case. He wanted beneficence to be keystone of society. It’s why, I believe, he kept writing the Theory of Moral Sentiments over and over throughout his life all the way up to his death. He kept trying, but couldn’t figure out a way to make beneficence work.  But others disagreed with such restraint. For them, some other virtue rightly supersedes justice. ‘Equality’ is a popular one. [It turns out the particular virtue chosen doesn’t matter.] The socialists design a system around their primer virtue. They still value justice—it is useful, after all—just not as much as their pet virtue—in this example, equality. What that means is that when questions of justice come up against questions of equality, equality wins thanks to the underlying rules of the system set up by the socialists. Importantly, that mean violence may be employed against society’s members in the service of the greater good, equality. Justice may be sacrificed for equality. Another way to say the same thing is that whenever the question of equality is brought up, violence is a legitimate tool for deciding the outcome—but only on the side seeking equality. The party claiming justice—self defense, say—is not permitted to use violence by the rules of the system.

In the beginning of a Socialist state, the virtue, equality, is specific and violence is surgical. But over time, everyone in the society will realize that, in order to triumph over their competition, they have only to cry “this is for equality,” at which point anything, even violence, is permissible against their opponent. In no time at all, every action by every member of society is “to promote equality!” At that point, the value prioritization that the society is built around no longer helps with rationing decisions. Without an easy rule of thumb for making hard rationing decisions, all decisions are made by violent contest. The end result is what Adam Smith predicted, the collapse of society into war. Later, F.A. Hayek titled this pattern, “the Road to Serfdom” but, if you read the book, it would have been better titled “the Road to Totalitarianism.” Socialism is a ‘there can only be one’ kind of game in the end.

That said, even in a mature socialist state where everyone understands the rules and the stakes, there will be disagreements and dissenters. There will be people who do not hold the pet virtue of the socialist organizers as sacred at every moment of every day of their lives. Those people will want to act on their opinions and circumstances and ration accordingly. Given the universe is so complex, such conflicts happen frequently. They happen so often, in fact, that steps have to be made by the socialist organizers to limit their own destructive responses, otherwise they’d end up killing or jailing everyone! So they remove private property. That way, even when people have those harmful urges to value something differently than the socialist agenda, they can’t act on it. Ditto with religion. Religions’ have their own ideas about which values and virtues deserve primacy. After violently repressing multiple religious organizations on a daily basis, the pattern becomes clear. There aren’t any religions that can coexist with a socialist state. Not because socialism is a religion—it isn’t—it is because socialism is a simplistic value system and all religions contain value preferences. Same thing with the family. Parents have these urges to protect each other and especially their young, even in the face of conflicts with the prime virtue. That’s a big problem, because everyone gets born in a family. Simple solution, dissolve the family.

 

In summary, socialism is any rationing system that systematically places any virtue or value above justice. The practical outcome of such a design is that, ultimately, all rationing decisions end up being decided through violent contest, private property is abolished, religion must be banned, family connections are undermined, and the school system becomes an instrument of the state. In the end, therefore, socialism is simply a denial of reality in the effort to design a utopia around benevolent intentions.  The abolition of private property, the family, and religion are not the goals of socialism. They are simply pragmatic solutions to unavoidable problems of a rationing system designed around any virtue other than justice.

 

Matt
Jun 25 2018 at 3:29am

To Saveyouself:

Not sure if you are serious or not, but it seems you have no experience of a social democratic society’s  (like Denmark, Norway, Sweden, or Finland for example).

Of course there are strong private property rules and freedom of religion (find it sad that this have to be said).

Regarding your point on equality vs justice, those terms have no be defined for a meaningful conversation. One can believe in reasonably equal opportunity (not outcome). But what one mean with equal opportunity can also differ greatly. Should everyone have the right to apply for higher education (no matter your ethnic background for example)? Or should it be taken one step further so that education is to be subsided by society so that those with best grades (not richest parents) can go to the best schools and university’s?

 

 

 

SaveyourSelf
Jun 25 2018 at 10:00am

Matt
“Regarding your point on equality vs justice, those terms have not be defined for a meaningful conversation.”
Justice [shorthand] – Do no harm. Remedy harm done.

Justice [per Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments] – Section II.II.5, “The violation of justice is injury: it does real and positive hurt to some particular persons.” Section II.II.9, “Justice is, upon most occasions, but a negative virtue, and only hinders us from hurting our neighbour.”

Equality – It doesn’t matter how you define it. Any virtue or value systematically prioritized above justice opens a window of violence into society that displaces justice. It is like a cut on your own skin that allows bacteria to enter your body and harm you. That displacement of justice, over time, grows until justice is but a fairy tail, and even that story will be erased through the use of centralized education. I read, for example, that the majority of Chinese do not know of the Tiananmen square massacre of 1989. It is not that they forgot. They’ve never heard of it. There is no mention of it in their history books. It is not taught. Their internet is scoured and blocked of any traces of the day their government ran over peaceful protesters with tanks.

“…it seems you have no experience of a social democratic society’s (like Denmark, Norway, Sweden, or Finland for example).”

Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland are all the rage right now among socialist intellectuals, just as the USSR was all the rage among socialist intellectuals in F.A. Hayek’s time. Those intellectuals were mistaken then, and are mistaken now.

“Of course there are strong private property rules and freedom of religion (find it sad that this have to be said).”

Yes and no. In Sweden parents are offered 480 days of paid parental leave.  This is a transfer of wealth from people who bear no children to people who have them, or from people that have few to people who have many. The transfer is administered by the State, and backed by force. So, in this example, Sweden has elevated time spent at home child rearing above justice. The state is willing to threaten and injure its own members to acquire the funds and capacity to promote time at home with newborns. I happen to love, as many do, the idea that time spent with children. It undoubtedly has very positive long term outcomes. I do not love, acknowledge, or accept, that such benefits justify threatening or harming anyone to make that wealth transfer happen. And that is the difference between socialism and libertarianism. The socialist is quite confident in the rightness of their cause, and is willing to back up their confidence with force. The libertarian, at least, can see the violence implicit in transfers and regulatory regimes, acknowledge that the harms may very well outweigh the benefits, and reject any such schemes, especially when the same objectives can be achieved through voluntary means.

Should everyone have the right to apply for higher education (no matter your ethnic background for example)?

If by “right” you mean the ability to take money from others through a non-voluntary exchange to fund said “higher education”, then the answer is resoundingly ‘NO’.  If by “right” you mean there are no threats or violent obstacles leveled against individuals applying for entry in school, then the answer is unequivocally ‘YES’. In the first sentence, right is elevated above justice. In the second, it is a synonym for justice.

Thank you for replying to my comments.

Zach Flynn
Jun 27 2018 at 6:02pm

Just caught a small error: The photograph in the post is of “The Suicide of the West” (Jonah Goldberg).

[It’s not really an error, but it’s definitely awkward and if I have a chance I’m going to try to change it. It’s not an error because a lot of the podcast episode is about Goldberg’s book. But you are correct that it is jarring. —Econlib Ed.]

LEAVE A COMMENT

required
required
required, not displayed
required, not displayed
optional
optional

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


DELVE DEEPER

This week's guest:

This week's focus:

Additional ideas and people mentioned in this podcast episode:

A few more readings and background resources:

A few more EconTalk podcast episodes:


AUDIO HIGHLIGHTS
TimePodcast Episode Highlights
0:33

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.

4:55

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.

7:45

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.

12:30

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.

18:05

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.

23:29

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.

25:45

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]

 


More EconTalk Episodes

Search Econlib
MORE OPTIONS