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A Marginal Revolt of the Public
Longread Response to Tyler Cowen on the New Right
Political theory is not easy. Each theory attempts to describe ground rules of a highly dynamic equilibrium, which pits brilliant tactical individuals, complex organizational structures, and narratives of nested deception against each other. Moreover, it is near impossible for a political theory to be purely descriptive. Politics is the highest authority on human ambition. So nearly all political theories are descriptions of both position and change.
At the efficient frontier, these theories face a Heisenbergian tradeoff. Theories which prescribe maintained stability fail to admit the true nature of the present. Theories which best describe the present and predict the near future imply categorical changes in strategy and objective. This tension is at the heart of what I call the political theory right.
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Their core motivation is skepticism of the current ruling elite and the systems which produce them. Here I described their broadest unifying ideology (which I identified as populism):
When I interact with populists, there is only one red line for collaboration or even friendship. You can disagree on economics, abortion, and even immigration, so long as you recognize the one commandment: the ruling class is illegitimate.
Tyler Cowen is skeptical of this same group of people, which he refers to as the New Right. In his words:
I would like to consider where the older classical liberal view differs from these more recent innovations. I don’t so much intend a cataloguing of policy positions as a quest to find the most fundamental difference, at a conceptual level, between the classical liberal views and their New Right competitors. That main difference – to cut to the chase — is how much faith each group puts in the possibility of trustworthy, well-functioning elites.
I don’t know why Tyler worded that last sentence that way. The New Right definitely believes in the possibility of elites. If anything, they believe much more in differences between some elites and the general population in areas such as intelligence, propensity to crime, personality, and many other factors. The rest of his article doesn’t change if we replace the last sentence with
That main difference – to cut to the chase — is how much faith each group puts in the current set of elites.
Tyler considers the practical consequences of distrust in current elites. He criticizes overestimates of elite collusion, impulsive contrarianism and the New Right’s combative affect. The New Right would benefit from taking each of these critiques seriously and improving itself, if only to accomplish its existing goals more effectively. Most political movements would benefit from taking those critiques seriously.
He also makes a broader case for what he calls Classical Liberalism.
In the classical liberal view, elites usually fall short of what we would like. They end up captured by some mix of special interest groups and poorly informed voters. There is thus a certain disillusionment with democratic government, while recognizing it is the best of available alternatives and far superior to autocracy for basic civil liberties.
That said, classical liberals do not consider the elites to be totally hopeless. After all, someone has to steer the ship and to this day we do indeed have a ship to steer. Most elites are intelligent and also they are as well-meaning as the rest of us, even if the bureaucratic nature of politics hinders their performance.
A clearer motivating affect is framed by this sentence near the end of the piece:
If you yank out a tooth, you cannot automatically expect a new and better tooth to grow back.
The Oasis of Stable Choice
It isn’t hard to imagine situations where Tyler is right. There are many things worse than managed decline. I have steelmanned the case for Biden and managed decline contra Jacob Siegel. The hard scenario to justify for Classical Liberalism isn’t simply Biden vs. Desantis. Nor is it simply Ocasio-Cortez vs. Masters, where CLs can correctly say that Masters is the lesser of two evils by CL standards. The hard scenario to justify is Biden vs. Desantis followed by Ocasio-Cortez vs. Masters.
Funnily enough, this is a line of argument used often by CLs. A classic argument for free speech is that if you wouldn’t want your enemies to have the power to censor speech, you shouldn’t pursue it when you are in power. The same argument applies to asymmetric tools for one political party. If you wouldn’t want AOC to receive significant de-facto campaign contributions via biased media, obstructive bureaucracies, and selective censorship, then you should be trying to remove those advantages while you still have the chance.
While there can be reasonable quantitative debates over the relative likelihood of threats to classical liberal freedoms arising on the left and the right, it cannot be assumed out of the gate that managed decline is a choice at all, even in the medium term. I would argue that it isn’t.
The Changeling Ideology
Typical ideologies have a central story. They have rooted facts and claims that accumulate loyalty over time. Social progressivism does not function this way. Social progressives exhibit a swarm behavior that is novel in political theory. In the paraphrased words of BJ Campbell: Some people outsource their driving to Google Maps. Others outsource their morality to Twitter.
This isn’t to point out that something exclusive to social progressives. In fact, many on the center and right display the same behavior. Instead, it’s to criticize a naive understanding of winning and losing:
The New Right also overrates the collusive nature of mainstream elites. Many New Right adherents see a world ever more dominated by “The Woke.” In contrast, I see an America where Virginia elected a Republican governor, Louis C.K. won a 2022 Grammy award on a secret ballot and some trans issues are falling in popularity. Wokism likely has peaked.
Here is a more accurate way of measuring power. Aggregate the policy wins of everything covered favorably on MSNBC compared to everything covered favorably on Fox. It is difficult to see any long-term wane of progressive dominance in this aggregate, even if conservatives successfully defeat one issue of many. I should note that Tyler gives some better examples of long-term trends that favor a broad coalition of CLs and NRs in the second half of the paragraph:
Similarly, the New Right places great stress on corruption and groupthink in American universities. I don’t like the status quo either, but I also see a world where the most left-wing majors – humanities majors – are losing enrollments and influence. Furthermore, the internet is gaining in intellectual influence, relative to university professors.
The Bounds of Experimentation
How much delegitimization is too much? By the previous paragraph, Tyler’s answer doesn’t seem to be zero. He presents the delegitimization of humanities majors and of professors relative to the internet as a positive. Maybe he’s a NR at heart. In all seriousness, delegitimization is not binary. In the spirit of Tyler’s post, I will try to avoid getting into the weeds of New Right policies. Instead, I would start with two questions:
How much experimentation with delegitimization is acceptable?
What results from this limited experimentation would dissuade you of classical liberal assumptions about each institution?
Here I want to address what I see as the worst criticism in the entire piece:
Perhaps most of all, it is dangerous when “how much can we trust elites?” becomes a major dividing line in society. We’ve already seen the unfairness and cascading negativism of cancel culture. To apply cancel culture to our own elites, as in essence the New Right is proposing to do, is not likely to lead to higher trust and better reputations for those in power, even for those who deserve decent reputations.
I see little motive and more importantly little ability on the NR to go after people for holding social progressive beliefs, let alone for something as utterly insane as saying a taboo word. Where NR seeks to wield power at all is against individuals or organizations that directly interfere with the political process, such as by censoring posts or selectively leaking information. There is no sugar coating it. These actions are simply categorically different in scale.
Here is a much more reasonable criticism:
Very recently we have seen low trust lead to easily induced skepticism about the 2020 election results, and also easily induced skepticism about vaccines. The best New Right thinkers will avoid those mistakes, but still every political philosophy has to be willing to live with “the stupider version” of its core tenets. I fear that the stupider version of some of the New Right views are very hard to make compatible with political stability or for that matter with public health.
I agree that most of the vaccine skepticism and the election conspiracy theories are fairly stupid. I see how one might come to believe they may result in violence. I think that they are at least one order of magnitude less stupid and less prone to violence than the “racial differences are caused by oppression” party. But I do wish they would stop.
The Hardest Hitter
There is a critique of NR that I wholeheartedly agree with:
The New Right also seems bad at coalition building, most of all because it is so polarizing about the elites on the other side. Many of the most beneficial changes in American history have come about through broad coalitions, not just from one political side or the other. Libertarians such as William Lloyd Garrison played a key role an anti-slavery debates, but they would not have gotten very far without support from the more statist Republicans, including Abraham Lincoln. If you so demonize the elites that do not belong to your side, it is more likely we will end up in situations where all elites have to preside over a morally unacceptable status quo.
Funny enough, Curtis Yarvin wrote a very controversial piece making a similar case. I try my best to negate this antagonism in whatever groups I interact with, whether it is the NR, libertarians, or the IDW. As Bryan Caplan advised Libertarians, “turn the friendliness level all the way up to Mormon.” The New Right should do the same. This is a deeper critique than just aesthetics. Tyler is right that the current NR ecosystem rewards negativity and paranoia. This generates some fairly poor distortions and could pose scaling problems in the future. If I were forced to choose a single factor most likely to tear NR apart, it would be this. However, this failure mode is one of depression and inaction, not collapse.
Overall, this was a piece of criticism that was cut to the heart of the issue. I appreciate it. It sharpened both my critiques and defences of various aspects of political theory. Next week will be my potentially spicier criticism of the NR, if I’m not too busy preparing for podcasts and ISI. Let me end with a quote which crystallized my approach to politics from Samo Burja, answering why he chose Otto Von Bismarck as the namesake of his company:
[Bismarck’s] social challenges especially were ones that were faced by a relatively conservative society or relatively a very traditional society that encountered these mass challenges of industrialization. Today we have a hard time even imagining the sheer pace of change from 1800 to 1870, right? During this time period there were parts of Europe where life hadn't changed much since the middle ages were sort of thrust into modernity and you know with it all the prospect and the question of what should politics be in this new world. One of Bismarck's innovations and one of the reasons I admire him was the welfare state, social democracy. Now, why is it admirable to introduce sort of the first retirement system and so on? Well in his personal beliefs Bismarck was fairly monarchist, fairly traditionalist yet he understood that pragmatism and innovation were necessary to sort of keep society running. To prevent chaos, war and revolution. Ah, but also ultimately to address iniquities of modern conditions as they are or rather as they were. What was back then modernity rather than what our preconceptions or theories would like them to be. So this sort of deep appreciation for, regardless of where your wishes, where you wish things would go, or how you want the world to be, seeing where it is and doing the best you can with that.
Last-minute addition: I laughed for a solid two minutes.
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