REVIEW: Jonah Goldberg's Suicide of the West

Goldberg has written the most conservative book in years.

Bernie bros and MAGA hats. Never Trump conservatives, liberal elites, and the alt-center. All of them agree that Western society is not in a happy place at the moment.

Populist movements on the Right and Left are ascendant across Europe and the United States. Voters indicate feeling a sense of despair about the future, and express worry at the idea that their children will inherit a world less secure and prosperous. Identity politics spews from elite institutions. Mass immigration, income inequality, racial bigotry, and the erosion in religious faith have left people feeling hopeless.

Goldberg points out that despite these legitimate issues facing the country, the West stands at the pinnacle of 300 years worth of miraculous achievement and progress. For the first 300,000 years of humanity's existence, people lived a bloody, impoverished, and painful existence. It was only in the 18th century that people stumbled upon the inventions that catapulted us into our modern age. Capitalism, the rule of law, democracy, and equal rights gave birth to modernity. By any measure, we are living in the most materially prosperous age in history. Hunger is at record lows. Life expectancy has never been higher. More people, of all colors, genders, and creeds, have more political freedom than ever before.

Humanity’s invention of these legal, economic, and philosophical systems is what Goldberg refers to as the Miracle. He spends the vast majority of his book tracing its development from the papyrus of Aristotle to the parchment of the Declaration of Independence. The scope of his analysis is a wonder to behold. The reader is given a lengthy analysis of John Locke versus Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a short history of the prehistoric agricultural revolution, a primer on the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and an introduction to the philisophes of the Enlightenment. Goldberg manages to draw a solid line of thought through thousands of years of Western civilization and into the Progressive Era of the 20th century, when the Miracle begins to unravel.

All along the way Goldberg returns to the roots of his argument. Human nature does not change. Humans are naturally violent, self-interested, and tribal. The Miracle happened by accident. Capitalism, democracy, religious pluralism, and human equality are unnatural. Like a garden, they must be tended to keep the weeds out. If we do not protect and cherish them, they will disappear and humanity will fall back into the natural state in which it existed for thousands of years.

For this reason, Goldberg looks disapprovingly at the current identity politics, nationalism, tribalism, and populism dominating the politics of Europe and the United States. All of these movements rely on the same basic instincts of human nature, operating under an “us versus them” worldview and placing little value on reason or principle. They are, however, natural impulses of human nature.

Jonah calls out those on the Right and Left who emphasize “winning” above any attachment to reason or consistency. As long as my side succeeds and the other loses, the tribalist says, nothing else matters. This winner-take-all mindset is rocking the foundations of America, the only nation founded with the ideals of the Miracle in mind. Goldberg gives countless examples across the political spectrum, with pointed words for Barack Obama, social justice warriors, and Donald Trump, among others.

To be clear, Goldberg’s message is a devoutly conservative one. The fact that some will hear his criticism of Trump and Republicans and dismiss him as a <gasp!> RINO, is a symptom of the disease Goldberg spends hundreds of pages diagnosing.

The Suicide of the West is conservative in the most fundamental sense. Conservatism is ultimately about conserving, and that comes from the impulse of gratitude. Goldberg ends on an optimistic call for gratitude for the Miracle. Democracy, rule of law, equality, property rights, capitalism, and religious pluralism are all good. We should strive to conserve them. In this sense, Jonah has published the most conservative book in years, and a modern classic for the conservative canon.

This is a book rooted in the vast intellectual heritage of the West, for which the modern conservative movement was founded to protect. That was in the 1950s when the threat to the West came from an external foe, communism. Today, we are threatened from within. Jonah’s book is a rallying cry for people across the political spectrum.

“I did not call my book “Decline of the West” or “Death of the West,” because suicide is a choice,” Jonah argues. “When a loved one is suicidal, what do you say to him? You tell him how much he has to live for, how much he should be grateful for.”

The West is not okay. But we have a choice in the matter.

Comments
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meh130
meh130

Over at Freebeacon, Matthew Continetti described two types of "Republicans" in one word each. For Congressional Republicans, he used "Freedom". For Trump Republicans, he used "Sovereignty". This was a spot-on observation. Continetti points out the two are both necessary, are symbiotic, yet in conflict.

Goldberg provides a very useful description of the basis for the "Freedom" Republicans, and provides a critique of the "Sovereignty" Republicans.

What I think many miss is it is possible for economic liberalism and free trade to both increase the total size of the pie while at the same time causing some people's pieces of the pie to get smaller.

Look at NAFTA and compare trade relationships with Mexico vs. Canada. Canada's median household income is similar to the U.S. Its environmental and labor protection laws are similar. Median manufacturing wages are similar. Its per-capita GDP is similar. Free trade with Canada does not cause a shift in capital--there is no financial gain associated with abandoning a capital investment in the U.S. in favor of net new capital investment in Canada.

Now compare to Mexico. Manufacturing relocated to Mexico means capital investment not impeded by the EPA, with construction labor costs of $1/hour. Manufacturing labor in Mexico is $1-$2/hour and not impeded by OSHA. Free trade with Mexico does cause a shift in capital--there is a financial gain associated with abandoning a capital investment in the U.S. in favor of net new capital investment in Mexico.

And if capital investment moves outside of the U.S. at a faster rate than it is replenished with higher value capital investment inside the U.S., the median point of the U.S. economy stagnates or declines.

Instead of NAFTA, we should have looked at a free trade zone with other economies which operate at similar economic levels to the U.S. (Canada, Australia, the U.K., France, Germany, and Japan), and negotiated more restrictive trade agreements with dissimilar economies.

The E.U. is starting to figure this out. The majority of E.U. trade is between its three largest members (the U.K., Germany, and France) and their economies are similar. Originally, the E.U. was comprised of the advanced nations of western Europe. There were some weak sisters, but most had relatively strong economies. Once poorer eastern European nations were incorporated into the E.U., there were capital and labor flow problems, so the E.U. has some similar struggles as NAFTA.

curtmilr
curtmilr

I used to enjoy Jonah's writing. "Liberal Fascism" was a masterwork, for example.

But comparing his muted conservative criticisms of Obama, and his more strident and ungainly self righteousness in condemning Trump and his supporters has made him virtually unreadable anymore. The change of tone is marked!

I had to cancel my free subscription to his NRO newsletter because it became so monotonously toxic, except for the dog reports.

A mind is a terrible thing to waste, and knee jerk #NeverTrumpism is a clear example of people of some former heft soiling their own mess kit! Jonah and Erick insist on firing into the circle of wagons of the conservative movement, rather than at the enemies outside that circle. What a shame!

His new book may be worthy of reading, but at this point a purchase of it would only encourage his further dissolution into irrelevancy regarding restoring the Republic. Trump is far from perfect, but he is a force for good regarding policy reforms on most every issue. Erick and Jonah stand on the sidelines and carp, having failed to realize the political moment that is still passing them by.

AjadedLizard
AjadedLizard

The irony of your comment amuses me, at least.

graydo
graydo

Goldberg should have thought up his own title instead of stealing one from James Burnham.

Jack_Krevin
Jack_Krevin

Meh. Sounds like a regurgitation of typical Never Trump talking points to me. I think I'll pass.