Alexis de Toqueville’s explanation of the descent of the French Revolution into the Terror, in The Old Regime and the Revolution, emphasized the outsized role that men of letters played in French political discourse prior to the Revolution.
These writers, as described by de Toqueville, had a decided preference for “general and abstract theories of government” and a tendency “to trust in them blindly.” Since they dwelt at “an almost infinite distance from practice... no experience tempered the ardors of their natures; nothing warned them of the obstacles that existing facts might place before them.”
With the passage of time, “they... became much bolder in their innovations, fonder of general ideas and systems, more contemptuous of old wisdom, and still more confident of their individual reason,” wrote de Toqueville.
We live in another such age of theory, writes Alain Finkelkraut. Take for example the lunatic claim that Jews are committing genocide against the Palestinians. Under Israeli rule of the West Bank from 1967 to 1992, life expectancy leaped by 50 percent – from 48 to 72; infant mortality dropped by 75 percent; seven universities were built where none had existed, and Palestinian illiteracy was reduced to a fraction of that in neighboring Egypt and Syria; and the West Bank, as of 1992, had the fourth-fastest-growing economy in the world. If that be genocide, it was genocide of a decidedly peculiar sort.
But, explains Finkelkraut, Europeans have a theory according to which Jews are uniquely capable of genocide today. And in an age of theory, a beautiful theory trumps a thousand unruly facts. What’s the theory? Because Jews were the victims of the Holocaust, not its perpetrators, they never learned of the danger of turning one’s fellow human beings into the dehumanized “other.” And by virtue of that alleged capability, Jews are not only suspect but convicted of committing genocide against the Palestinians.
The recently signed P5+1 nuclear deal with Iran is based on another such theory: that the nicer the United States is to the Iranian mullahs, the more it caves in to their demands and acknowledges their valid reasons for hating America, the more they will seek to be like us and want to be good citizens of the world.
US President Barack Obama has literally bet the fate of the world on that conjecture.
The deal is irrespective of tens of thousands of Iranians chanting “Death to America,” or of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s insistence that Iran will continue to fight American arrogance – because hatred of America is the very raison d’etre of the regime.
The theory that the Iranian theocracy will be transformed by kindness betrays another failure of progressive theorists from the French Revolution to the present: They view religion as “irrational,” and cannot fathom that anyone else takes its claims seriously.
That Iran really seeks world conquest for Islam is too absurd to countenance as an explanation of regime behavior.
Another Obama theory holds that even rabid anti-Semites, such as the Iranian mullahs, will not act upon their hatreds to the harm of their “rational” interests. But history proves the opposite: The Nazis diverted vital war materiel in an effort to wipe out Hungarian Jewry in Auschwitz.
THE ATTACHMENT to theory over empirical evidence is seen in the way that leftist policy prescriptions are repeated endlessly despite their failures. What Walter Russell Mead calls the Blue Model of governance – high taxes, high regulation, and generous public pensions – is failing everywhere. From mid-size California cities to Detroit, Chicago and most recently Puerto Rico, it has led to literal bankruptcy.
A vicious cycle sets in of higher taxes to pay pensions based on fantastical assumptions, followed by the flight of business and jobs to lower tax states, followed by yet higher taxes on those remaining to compensate for the lost business and jobs. Eventually, Blue Model cities and states experience the highest income inequality, as the population divides between extremely high earners, on the one hand, and the menial workers who serve them and welfare recipients, on the other.
The Obama administration has now set out to increase Muslim immigration, despite Europe’s dystopian experience, which has left it poised to become an extension of the Maghreb by the end the century, with an increasingly radicalized and unassimilable Muslim population taking over.
THOSE WHO prefer theory over history and facts do not just produce bad policy; they are subject to a profoundly illiberal, even totalitarian, temptation. Their theory of government is that “smart” people – i.e., theoreticians like themselves – ought to run the show.
A corollary is that all smart people will reach similar “rational” conclusions, and that those who don’t are either fools or evil. Not surprisingly, when human beings and reality fail to conform to their theories, they turn ornery.
Think Pol Pot.
Hostility to free markets and a profound ambivalence toward representative democracy are part and parcel of the preference for abstractions. The former are too irrational and chaotic. Markets give equal value to the desires of the not-so-bright. Central planning, by contrast, is much more rational, or so it seems, until one considers its unbroken record of failure. Just think of resource-rich Venezuela, where years of socialist rule have made both food and toilet paper scarce.
Similarly, the flaw of representative democracy is that fools and geniuses alike have one vote. The preferred form of municipal government for early American progressives was unelected city managers, above the fray of partisan politics. And those same early progressives created the modern administrative state, whose rule-making by unelected bureaucratic “experts” has become virtually indistinguishable from the lawmaking power conferred exclusively upon Congress by the Constitution.
Self-styled progressive Obama is perfectly comfortable ruling by executive decree and through administrative agencies, like the Environmental Protection Agency, which seeks to impose by rule-making what could never pass in Congress.
Obama’s progressive predecessor, president Woodrow Wilson, famously declared the US Constitution, with its federal system and checks and balances, to be an outmoded document for the modern age, and called for a much more powerful unitary executive.
Progressive thinkers have little patience for the rules of procedures of representative democracy or its allocation of decision-making authority. Only results matter and that the smart people make the decisions – be they judges, agency bureaucrats, or the president himself. Neither Supreme Court president Aharon Barak in his heyday nor Justice Anthony Kennedy more recently showed the slightest concern over who appointed them philosopher-king to determine the nature of human dignity.
THE ASSUMPTION that those who disagree are either stupid or evil undercuts the fundamental democratic value of tolerance. On issues like anthropogenic climate change, modern progressives are ever eager to declare the debate over, and even advocate criminal penalties for global warming deniers. (This at a time when many climate scientists are forecasting a mini-Ice Age based on lower solar activity.) Anyone who follows nutrition and health reports knows how wildly fluctuating the best scientific advice is. How much more unlikely is the discussion to be over in the vastly more complex area of climate, involving up to 20 different scientific disciplines and in which controlled experiments are impossible.
Not by accident are the most progressive institutions in American society – the universities – those with the most restrictive speech codes designed to regulate various and sundry “micro-aggressions” in speech. Similarly, the universities have cast aside the most basic requirements of due process in complaints arising out of the licentious campus culture that administrators otherwise have done so much to encourage.
The Orwellian argument of the late Brandeis philosopher Herbert Marcuse that “new and rigid restrictions” on certain teachings that protect the oppressive status quo are required for true freedom of thought to flourish represents only the outer limit of where the preference for abstractions over human reality can lead. The writer is director of Jewish Media Resources, has written a regular column in The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997, and is the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.