Failures in Moderation

Editor’s note: This essay is part of a Law & Liberty Symposium on Yuval Levin’s A Time to Build.

In our immoderate times, one of the most wonderful things about the moderation we so badly need is that it can be easily summarized in one piece of advice: Mind your own business. Our best moderate, Yuval Levin has written a book, A Time to Build, dedicated to explaining the blessings that follow from that advice and especially the catastrophes that follow from neglecting it. Levin is a dedicated student of Socratic philosophy who speaks of himself as parsing Aristotle, but I think we all prefer a personal, dramatic view of things, not a technical treatise. Thankfully Levin’s work lends itself to a more Platonic than Aristotelian reading.

We could understand our elites better if we studied Plato’s dialogue on moderation, Charmides. There is evidence that Plato’s problems and ours are connected: Socrates’ companions in that dialogue are a crazy partisan of Athenian democracy and two future tyrants. Set right after Athens starts the war against Sparta which will eventually ruin it, political crisis remains in the future in this dialogue. In the dialogue, a young man of astonishing beauty is causing everyone, from children to the aged, and not excluding Socrates, to love him. So also Levin says what we all know to be true, that the root of our political immoderation today is the erotic immoderation of the 1960s.

The strongest criticism Levin makes—that people now routinely abuse institutions for personal reasons, putting celebrity over duty—suggests a profound conflict. This struggle pits an older order formed by institutions against a newer order defined by troublesome and individualistic leaders. This phenomenon has never been better described than in Plato’s dialogues as the revolutionary arrival of full democracy, which is dedicated to liberating eros.

In between Plato and our postmodern world stands Tocqueville, who thought deeply about the character of political moderation in the modern regimes of freedom and equality. He said that in America, the men go home to wife and children, such that the enjoyment of tranquility offers consolation for life’s hardships while also reminding them to fear how much they would lose were they to engage in radical politics. They are inclined, that is, to mind their own affairs. In France, where adultery was then, and still remains, a sport, the humiliations and mistrust of the home lead men into political clubs where they propose to undertake or provoke crazy changes.

Well, almost a majority of American adults aren’t married anymore, and children are also missing from our lives, so it would be wise to fear the consequences of this unhappiness. Levin seems to believe this poses real dangers. Hence the great need to build institutions that will foster moderation—we are too tempted now to take our private issues and turn them into political issues, going from a personal form of craziness to a public one. Since our lives are immoderate, let’s make our politics immoderate, too—what could possibly go wrong from simply being honest?

A Loss of Order

As a student of Aristotle, Levin admits we need elites to run America, but they need to be of a certain kind that’s good for us. His core criticism of elites is that they don’t mind their business, which is to serve the institutions that have made them wealthy and respected. Instead, they abuse them for their own ends. This leads us to suspect that our elites do not believe in those institutions—the purposes they serve and the people they lead. But of course, our elites are today at least hypothetically the product of a meritocracy—that is, they are supposed to be our best. So in one sense, they are like us, only more so—they are, as Lincoln said, of the people, by the people, for the people, yet they are elevated to high positions which require justification. This often results in two implied claims to rule us in the name of moderation: both their bodies and their minds are better than ours. I think that if we look at these claims to rule we will see why our elites continuously usurp institutions and legitimacy.

Our elites mind their own business at least so far as the body is concerned. They aren’t fat, because they exercise, diet, and avoid fast food. Nor are they lazy, because they have busy work and leisure schedules. They are overachievers for whom health is proof of the mind’s scientific control of the body. The food they eat is scientifically proven to be better, as is the way they eat it. They drink scientific coffee and sleep according to scientific recommendations. They try to solve the problem of aging and death scientifically, to live the longest, most active lives imaginable, free of pain and boredom. They seem to leave nothing to chance, but rather control as much of life as possible technologically, and so they love gadgets. Expertise rules their every thought.

They apply the same principle, the mind’s rule over body, to the body politic, of course. Just like the desire for sugar, steak, or fried fat has to be denied in the name of health, the various desires of the people have to be denied in the name of good policy. Our elites are great nay-sayers and would seem to need the rest of us if for no other reason than to have someone to say no to. Moderation emerges as a motherly, not to say schoolmarmish, refusal to give spoiled brats what they want. Politics is reducible to a simple relationship: We the people are immoderate and they, our elites, will moderate us. As Tocqueville said, they want to save us the pain of living and the trouble of thinking, and since this is a matter of piety to them, they are unlikely to take no for an answer.

This is because they have a comprehensive science in accordance with which all aspects of life will be regulated. You might have a job you’re good at, which our elites cannot do better than you, as do I and many others, but what we all lack is a form of knowledge superior to all our own forms of knowledge which puts them all together. I mind my own private business, as must we all, but who then will mind the public business? Our elites will. Busybodying is their job and their job is all they ever do. They must regulate our lives and administer our affairs—telling other people how to live is how they live. They are in this sense completely different from the rest of us and cannot be expected to obey the same rules. Only by proving they are different, by compelling us to do what they tell us, can they be sure that they are successful. These golden gods atop the American pyramid are tyrants.

The Poverty of Science

Plato set Charmides in the midst of immoderate men and desires in order to reveal the tyrannical character of politicized science and its distinction from philosophy—that is, its profound distance from moderation. He wanted to show how the idea of a science of science, a master science, goes together with a lack of self-knowledge, an inability to judge characters. This self-ignorance leads to the dangers we are now facing with our elites. Their ideals of scientific rule are based on a belief they cannot examine. They are neither competent nor eager to ask themselves how much knowledge they really have about people and about the world. Instead of undertaking that examination of their own arguments, they prove their competence by pointing to the fruit of their own lives. But if the rest of us keep disappointing them, they have to tyrannize over us in order to prove they are right—science, after all, cannot fail.

Since they cannot judge characters and events, they cannot truly persuade themselves—or anyone else for that matter. They must, therefore, absolutely control us, lest we disagree with them, refuse to vote for them, laugh at them, or worse.

The politicization of science is a necessity for our elites. It is their title to rule, the source of their supposedly superior mind, and the purpose of their lives. It allows them to rule the rest of us, at whatever level they can, and thus it is their only path to understanding themselves. Our elites know who they are because of what they do to us—and especially because of those things we wouldn’t do unless compelled by them. Only those things distinguish them from us. That is to say, our elites are ultimately moderate in the sense that they moderate us. They must take our freedom in order that they feel free—the science of public affairs requires it.

Merit and Elitism

Moderation requires a connection to knowledge—understanding what you’re doing is necessary to find a mean between extremes. And so you can say of pretty much any activity that there’s an ordinary way of doing it and there is a way of doing it well. There’s your average Joe and there’s the expert. Meritocracy justifies tyranny by replacing how we ordinarily do things with how those things should be done. You and I might hesitate to tell someone else how to raise a child, but a doctor or a teacher is likely to assert the authority to dictate, within the limits of their expertise. The all-encompassing expertise of our elites justifies their telling us how to live. They know us better than we know ourselves, because they are better at being human than we are.

From every point of view, the abuse we suffer from our elites is a necessity—from every point of view, that is, except ones centered on freedom or the Socratic insistence on finding out the truth. Since most of us aren’t Socrates, we insist on our freedom, but find that our elites won’t leave us be, not even when they keep failing at policy, elections, foreign affairs, technological innovation, and theoretical science. No amount of failure can stop them because we have no Socrates to prove to them that they are ignorant and arrogant. They will just ignore the lessons they might have learned from catastrophic wars, terrorist attacks, economic crises, and social unrest and try something else. If we prove recalcitrant, they will use force. Only when we are sure that we are right can we force them to stop trying to tyrannize over us, and only if we act for ourselves politically, publicly, and loudly. But this would mean nothing less than denying the authority of people who claim scientific expertise to rule our lives. Otherwise, they treat every catastrophe as an accident they will fix, another chance to become more perfect and rule us better.

Socrates reveals a lot of bad news in this dialogue on moderation and it would take a long study to show how the arrival of science and philosophy tempts people to tyranny. I want to conclude instead by reiterating the most obvious things we now don’t dare utter and reflect on. Shame and fear, as I suggested at the beginning, are what we can rely on to keep people moderate. Our elites, however, have technology, which serves to overcome fears and demolish any sense of shame. When you can play with trillions of dollars and fantasize about new technologies that will control how people live and die, it’s almost impossible to accept your limits or face up to your own ignorance. It’s possible that we need to learn from Socratic political philosophy how to confront this politicized science, for the sake of political freedom, or else moderation is doomed and we must expect our political crisis to lead to catastrophe.

The character of the people and our capacity for action is now being tested. We will find out whether we are the kind of people who allow ourselves to be pushed around and humiliated. Levin has done us a great service in asking us to see clearly how our institutions are abused by elites and how we must dedicate ourselves to these institutions, at every level from family to Congress—he even uses the word devotion, suggesting we need a kind of civic piety. I hope to add to his important tract this extrapolation: that our elites are deluded by their scientific fantasy of control over body and mind. We need new elites who don’t share that delusion, but know how ignorant we truly are about ourselves—elites unafraid to notice how many things we have arrogantly destroyed. Levin offers a better education for such new elites than most people in our public life.


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