Pitchforks in one hand and iPhones in the other, populists have been on the march all across the globe. They are spurred by an information revolution that has undermined their faith in elites and elite institutions. Whatever their particular cause or demands, and regardless of whether they come from the left or the right, all represent a challenge to the status quo and all have the news sources and social media feeds to back them up.
Challenging established authorities can be a good thing, of course—and history offers many examples of elites and institutions that deserved to be undermined. In a free and open society, a healthy challenge process encourages innovation and can lead to better outcomes for organizations and institutions, and for society as a whole. Creative destruction depends on it. But how can we keep the emphasis on creating rather than destroying, on building up rather than tearing down?
By definition, a society that is dynamic and progressive (in the sense of getting better) must be able to change. In the past this process was mediated by professionals and through established institutions that offered opportunities for redress. These institutions ranged from news and other media (everything from letters to the editor to specialized publications such as Consumer Reports) to varying religious and civic organizations, labor unions and layered levels of representative government.
Did they all always live up to the trust placed in them? Clearly not. Were there times when they sided with elites when they should not have? Yes. But compare that to the present situation, when appeals for change, reform or justice are made directly to the public via various social media megaphones. The cacophony can be deafening and disorienting.
Wheat from the Chaff
The intermediaries who once might have separated the legitimate from the illegitimate (albeit never flawlessly) are no longer called upon to do so. Now we are faced with trying to sort through what is and is not important, all the while realizing that we are ill equipped to do so. Fallible humans, we can be stirred by the wrong things—partial accounts, fear, emotion and so on—as we seek to gather evidence and adjudicate matters.
British conservative philosopher Roger Scruton had a distinctly pessimistic take on the future of a world more and more characterized by the “freedom to believe anything at all, provided you feel better for it.” In his view, freedom was something else entirely: “a precious achievement that human communities have arrived at through many sacrifices, and it requires institutions, laws—it requires a habit of obedience, as much as anything else.”
Scruton did not oppose change. But he emphasized two different types. One, grounded in resentment, “tries to overthrow the whole system of thinking on which we have hitherto depended.” (Think the French and Russian revolutions.) The other is “part of the natural reform of our institutions and our way of seeing things.” (Think the Glorious Revolution or the American Revolution.)
So how can we learn to accommodate different perspectives and live peaceably together as we seek to build a better future for all? Can humility help? That would mean admitting that we may not know as much as we think we do and acknowledging the possibility that we may be wrong. Or perhaps exercising some of the other old virtues: Respect. Courtesy. Deference. Generosity. Temperance. Tolerance. Graciousness. Self-restraint. Patience. Mutual forbearance.
Another is gratitude—expressing thankfulness and embracing a sense of indebtedness. This entails recognizing that we take too much for granted and fail to appreciate all that we have.
Art Imitates Life
“What have the Romans ever done for us?”
That’s the question asked by Reg, leader of the People’s Front of Judea in the 1979 comedy Monty Python’s Life of Brian, which is set in ancient, Roman-occupied Judea. His goal is to fire up his small band of would-be Jewish revolutionaries and get them to overthrow their Roman masters. But when Reg asks, “What have the Romans ever done for us?,” the answers he gets to his question aren’t what he expects.
“The aqueduct?” offers one of the men.
“And the sanitation,” ventures another.
“And the roads,” adds a third.
Additional unexpected (and unwelcome) answers follow: Irrigation. Medicine. Education. Wine. Public order. Peace.
Author and one-time political candidate Saira Rao had a similar experience to Reg’s when she posted the following challenge on her Twitter account last summer: “Name ONE non-trash aspect about this country.”
A Flurry of Positive Answers
The responses to Rao’s post must have taken her aback.
“Jews who escaped pogroms and later the Holocaust” was one of the positive answers she received. “Armenians who escaped the Turkish genocide” was another. Some responses cited foundational documents like the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address. Others ranged from “deposit insurance” to “national parks” to “baking powder.” The “non-trash” individuals included George Washington, Frederick Douglass, Willa Cather and Elvis.
Here’s a selection of other responses to Rao’s “name ONE non-trash aspect about this country” challenge:
- the telephone
- the transistor
- the computer
- the Marshall Plan
- the internet
- the world’s first and most generous universal and debtor-friendly bankruptcy code
- commitment to free speech
- welcomes more immigrants every year than any nation on Earth
- tradition of self-criticism
- religious freedom
Now, without making the opposite mistake of chest-thumping nationalism, there’s surely something to at least build on here. As Harvard historian Danielle Allen has argued, we need to strike the right balance in our engagement with the past, and that’s “honesty without cynicism, and appreciation without adulation.”
What’s Gratitude Got to Do with It?
The man who urges us to think on whatsoever things are true, honest, just, pure, lovely and of good report was not always surrounded by such things. During the last 30 years of his life, the Apostle Paul faced suffering at every turn, including prison, beatings, stoning, the lash, shipwreck, hunger, abandonment and the threat of death. Paul’s was no Pollyanna prescription for the world.
Baylor University professor Alan Jacobs suggests a similar approach when it comes to processing the world’s imperfections. He calls it the Gandalf Option. Like Voltaire’s Candide, Jacobs calls on us to be gardeners.
“We get so caught up in fighting against all the things that we believe to be wicked and destructive that we fail to nourish and care for and strengthen, to feed and water the gardens that we hope will produce fruit for our children and our grandchildren.”
We would do well to dig deeper into the past for things that meet St. Paul’s “whatsoever” criteria. They are a reminder of the many causes for gratitude and indebtedness in America. In no particular order, here are some volunteered by Mercatus colleagues:
- the legal and social norms that allow innovation to thrive
- the First Amendment—no other country protects speech to the same extent
- jury trials—and that includes jury nullification
- the National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry
- the most Nobel laureates
- land-grant universities
- a long tradition of citizen soldiers willing to fight for our freedoms at home and abroad
- federalism and the separation of powers—two institutional/structural workhorses that have kept our constitutional republic afloat for more than 230 years
- the first country to give freedom to nonprofits to be nonprofits (separated from church-state control)
- an underlying culture of social trust and rule of law as a foundation for markets to thrive
- what Tocqueville called “the spirit of association”
- a long, if imperfect, tradition of permissionless innovation
These are things that enrich our lives and worth acknowledging.
Is “Good Form” Good Enough?
In the end Roger Scruton wasn’t so sure. His regret looking back over the years was that he had been “too soft.” For him this had meant “thinking we could all just arrange things by sticking to nice, agreeable procedures.” Such an approach, however, does offer benefits to creators that pitchfork-wielding destroyers will never realize.
Respect, courtesy, deference, generosity, temperance, tolerance, graciousness, self-restraint, patience, mutual forbearance—these may seem impotent weapons in the current struggles. Yet they do bring people together in common purpose. Not at the expense of principle or deeply held beliefs, but over shared values and a desire to promote the common good.
History shows that when Americans unite on this basis they have overcome great challenges. They can do so again. Especially when they also bring to bear those other American traits of diligence, fortitude, determination, grit and courage.
Scruton got many things right over the course of his life. Let’s hope he was wrong about this latter one.
Note from the editors of Discourse: Can you think of other “non-trash aspects” about our country? If so, we’d love to hear your ideas. You can share them here.