Monday, January 10, 2011

Book Review: Ill Fares the Land by Tony Judt

I haven't seriously delved into leftist literature since college. And having sworn off the leftist 'mainstream' media a year or so back, I don't even get the distasteful occasional exposure. At a friend's suggestion, however, I recently read Tony Judt's Ill Fares the Land, twice. Broadly it's a egalitarian's attempt at rededication to the welfare state, or 'democratic socialism' as he prefers to call it. It is partly historical, partly moral, partly political but on close inspection mostly a tired rehash of discredited leftist ideas and arguments. It starts out with an attack on 30 years of the pursuit of self-interest including an attempt to discredit classical economics. The middle of the book is filled with some history of welfare statism as well as numerous assertions of Keynes' greatness without any serious description of his views or any substantive quotes. Then Judt moves on to a description and attempted discrediting of Austrian economists. He closes with an idea that is at least new enough that I've not seen it before. More on that later.

The most fallacious aspect of the book is its use of straw men. Rather than picking the best, most logical, most philosophical opponents, he picks the worst, the most inconsistent and of course makes them look ridiculous. So he criticizes selfishness throughout the book, opening with an attack on the "thirty years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest" but doesn't have the courage to take on the quintessential advocate of the Virtue of Selfishness, Ayn Rand. Rand showed that only life gives rise to the need for goal directed action and that an organism's life can be the only standard of value. In other words Rand gives a logical defense of self-interest way beyond some simple advice to go to business school, which Judt considers the depth of the quest for personal happiness. Instead of Rand, Judt prefers to attack Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, neither of whom would have defended the morality of self-interest. 

Judt attacks 'capitalism' throughout the book without defining it. Only late in the book does he say that it is "not a political system; it is a form of economic life, compatible in practice with right-wing dictatorships (Chile under Pinochet), left-wing dictatorships (contemporary China), social-democratic monarchies (Sweden) and plutocratic republics (the United States)." He dares not define capitalism even as Marx did (a political system where the means of production are privately owned) nor mention the early days and thinkers of the United States like Thomas Jefferson. 

And my favorite straw man is in his attack on the 'Austrians'. Anyone partly educated in economics, politics or current events might have heard mention of the Austrian economists, staunchly pro-individual economists deriving their name from the birthplace of their founders (Menger, Boehm-Bawerk, von Mises and Hayek). They are much in the news lately because they (e.g. Peter Schiff) constitute a vast majority of the economists who saw the housing bubble and financial crisis in advance. Well Judt's handling of the 'Austrians' is first to group them not by thought, but by literal birth, so his Austrians are von Mises, Hayek, Schumpeter (~), Peter Drucker (!!) and Carl Popper (!!!) (pg. 98). Secondly rather than describe their views on economics he focuses on their prediction that western countries were becoming like Nazi Germany. Haha, weren't they silly. No need to read them I guess.

Here are some of the other outstanding absurdities from the book:
  • Unregulated capitalism caused the crash of 2008, and free market economists didn't see it coming, invalidating the entire field of economics [too bad Judt didn't pay attention to some of those Austrians]
  • Government can play an enhanced role in our lives without threatening our liberties [how exactly is that role going to be paid for?]
  • Climate change will force us to choose between fascism and socialism
  • Without the state, private individuals cannot create roads, fire-fighting services, schools, lamp posts or post offices [never mind that most of these were created privately, and that now the gov't goes out of its way to make it illegal for private individuals to compete with it in these areas]
  • Taxes are consensual
  • Social Democracy has never descended into authoritarianism [hello?!? Weimar Germany -> Nazi Germany]
  • Political freedom is only freedom of speech (pg 200)
  • Communism's fall did not discredit state planning
Judt's positive message is that the failure of the left is not a failure of substance but of talk. The failure of every communist regime, the failure of every government assistance program and the impending failure of welfare states globally doesn't count. What counts is how we talk about it, or perhaps how we skillfully avoid talking about it. "Our problem is not what to do; it is how to talk about it" (pg 6), "Our disability is discursive: we simply do not know how to talk about these things any more" (pg 34), "The problem today lies not in social democratic policies, but in their exhausted language" (pg 144),  "to recast our public conversation--seems to me the only realistic way to begin to bring about change" (pg 171), "We need to re-open a different sort of conversation. We need to become confident once again in our own instincts: if a policy or an action or a decision seems somehow wrong, we must find the words to say so" (pg 173), "What we lack is a moral narrative: an internally coherent account that ascribes purpose to our actions" (pg 183). 

My favorite along these lines is the following: "So what is to be done? What sort of political or moral framework can the Left propose to explain its objectives and justify its goals?" (pg 179) Read that again. What moral framework can the Left propose to justify its goals? That means that its goals (egalitarianism, the destruction of the rich, the enslavement of all for all) are unarguable axioms that only need an invented justification for public consumption. He says if something seems wrong we must "find the words to say so," but what he means is not 'the' words, but any words. The feeling of something being right or wrong is self-evidently valid and the words are window-dressing. This is the fundamental subjectivism of the Left and by itself invalidates the entire movement. A movement based on unanalyzed feelings has no validity. Subjectivism rejects reality and reason, the only means of determining truth or falsehood. (Keep this in mind next time you hear about 'bad optics' or 'managing the narrative' or quibbling about the meaning of 'is'.)

If that's not enough I'll point out that after all his talk about changing the language of discourse and re-imagining, he doesn't. He doesn't talk any differently about the state or politics than any old pragmatic welfare statist. He talks about changing the talk, but its all talk. All promise and no delivery. He even trots out the old private-individuals-couldn't-create-a-railroad argument. Give me a break.

Judt's sole novelty is around page 221. He makes the argument that social democracy and the Left are conservative movements.
The Left has always had something to conserve. We take for granted the institutions, legislation, services and rights that we have inherited from the great age of 20th century reform. It is time to remind ourselves that all of these were utterly inconceivable as recently as 1929. We are the fortunate beneficiaries of a transformation whose scale and impact was unprecedented. There is much to defend.
He goes on to connect 'defensive' Social Democracy with 'caution', 'prudence' and an 'idealized past'. At first I thought Judt was trying to destroy what vestiges of meaning 'conservative' still has, to confuse pro-capitalists. But then he drops this bombshell:
It is doctrinaire market liberals who for the past two centuries have embraced the relentlessly optimistic view that all economic change is for the better. It is the Right that has inherited the ambitious modernist urge to destroy and innovate in the name of a universal project. From the war in Iraq through the unrequited desire to dismantle public education and health services, to the decades-long project of financial deregulation, the political Right--from Thatcher and Reagan to Bush and Blair--has abandoned the association of political conservatism with social moderation
Nevermind the factual inaccuracies. If this is the moral position of the modern Leftist, then they have utterly lost and we have nearly won. What he's saying here is that the 'market liberal' (a good term, he should've used it more) is the moral crusader for a more beautiful future and the Leftist is the burnt out pragmatist trying to hold on to his comfortable past. This is true, but for most of the 19th and 20th centuries the Left has pretended to be the voice of the future and the Right have dutifully taken up conserving the past. On the very next page Judt says about social democracy: "Incremental improvements upon unsatisfactory circumstances are the best we can hope for, and probably all we should seek." If this isn't a declaration of moral failure and massive concession to the righteousness of market liberalism, the Constitution and the Tea Party, I don't know what its.

Judt's book was written for young people who feel there's something wrong with the world but can't define it. There is something wrong. We're facing several crises in our time, but privatization and growing inequality (his boogeymen) are not among them. The crises we are facing are 1) the failure of democratic socialism in the U.S. and Europe and its rapid decline into authoritarianism 2) the related failure of altruism as a guide and the idea of 'the common good' as a standard  3) the expansion of Islam into the moral void left by Western altruism, aided by the failing welfare programs. The answer to these crises is not to unleash our feelings, but to think, to understand, to know and to judge. Read Rand, read the Austrian economists, read history. We have much to learn, but we are winning.


  1. Shane, well done. Excellent job.

    So, Judt is admitting he's a "reactionary" or "counter-revolutionary"? I did not think there was a more perjorative term in the statist/collectivist playbook.

    Aside from the excellent intellectual arguments you make, to me, collectivism just does not seem like it is very fun. Is there anything "fun" about "top-down" or "command and control"? I'm pretty sure Marx never rode a dirt bike.

    "Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" is the ultimate "constitutional republic for dummies" that the Founders granted us.

  2. I guess you could describe him that way. Or "comfortably bourgeois". And thanks :)

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