Our society is sick. The United States is obviously in tumult with sharp divisions between Red and Blue with the litmus test being which political party one thinks is treasonous. Surely there is some mush in the middle, but it would be a happier world if the simplistic generalization were farther from the truth. And, though the unhappiness of our nation is the myopic focus of American media, much of the rest of the West is also suffering from dueling populisms.
Jonah Goldberg’s recent book, Suicide of the West, is an attempt to explain what is ailing our civilization. He offers the thesis that the fundamental problem is not primarily a free market economy or confident pluralism in the public square. Rather, the problem is that civilization has paid too little attention to the character that made pluralism and small government possible. His flat statement, “The Western way takes a lot of work” (13), sums up the underlying problem.
Crony capitalism has overtaken the free market through regulatory capture (the process by which industries take control of the government entities that are supposed to regulate them) and excessive political entanglement by corporations; the population no longer expects politicians to be above making special arrangements for financial gain and tolerates corporations blatantly seeking them. Corruption is present wherever human government exists, but when bribes become systemic and are euphemistically named lobbying, and the population accepts lobbying when it supports their views, the root of the problem is actually a character that we seem no longer to have, because developing such character is hard work.
To some, Goldberg’s initial, stark statement, “There is no God in this book” (3), is a warning sign, an indication of the anti-religious corrosion of liberalism. However, Goldberg’s point is not that strong religious belief is bad, or that it played no part in arriving at our period of unimaginable prosperity. Rather, as he has offered in response to another reviewer, he is trying to explain the seemingly miraculous opportunities for human flourishing in the contemporary West in a way that might resonate with some not already convinced. There is no prosperity gospel and little sympathy with the theologically illiterate Weberian Protestant Ethic in the pages of Goldberg. To do that, he felt he had to primarily argue in social rather than religious terms. In other words, what Goldberg calls the Miracle—our historically unique health and wealth—must be explained as a miracle of human social ingenuity if it is to have appeal among skeptics, atheists, and nones.
The main point of Goldberg’s book is that while society is sick, we should be careful to pursue a remedy that will help fix the problem but create a new injury in another area. In other words, it is easy to blame market economics for making society sick, but rejecting the freedom that makes prosperity possible may well create worse problems in another direction. It seems obvious to some that liberalism is the problem, since it has to a diminution of the significance of religion in the public square. However, imposing a supposedly benign integralism is likely to lead to worse religious tensions. The simple solutions––retreating to socialism or conflating church and state––are unlikely to make things better for much of the population.
Goldberg offers a theory that is both positive in tone and daunting in form. He argues that our main problem is that we strayed from the formula, and we paid the price. The answer, then, is not to abandon the formula, but to get back to what seemed to work so well.
What formula have we strayed from? The formula is not an economic calculation or a particular religious faith. Rather, the West—and particularly the United States—has forgotten the power of mediating institutions. He notes, “By reducing American life to the individual or the state, with nothing important in the middle, we sweep aside all of the nooks and crannies of life where people live and interact. The cliché that ‘government is just the word for the things we do together’ renders invisible the vast ecosystem of civil society where people voluntarily cooperate and find meaning in their lives.” (305)
Capitalism is, in part, to blame for this shift, according to Goldberg. Its creative destruction undermines some of the traditional institutions and tight communities that in a more traditional economy might flourish. At the same time, capitalism also enables associations and resources cooperation for good in ways previously unthinkable in human history. The trouble is that the culture has attempted to reap the goods of liberalism, capitalism, and all the other -isms without counteracting their downsides.
We’ve forgotten that while it is wonderful to be able to watch your favorite sports team from the comfort of your own home, watching twenty hours of American football on a weekend is a vice and not a virtue. Society has neglected to consider that because people are freer to move to a new location where they can flourish in their vocation, communities need to be more open to relocation and the migrants need to seek to set down roots. Self-control and community self-policing is difficult, and it has not been done effectively. According to Goldberg, the acceptance of the inward turn toward the individual explains the lion’s share of contemporary culture’s woes.
Suicide of the West is an honest book. Goldberg manages to dodge the facile cheerleading of some seeking to restore a mythical heyday of American greatness. He also deftly avoids the pessimistic decline narrative, which is eternally attractive when it casts blame on outgroups. Instead, this book attempts to offer a diagnosis with some suggestions for treatment.
At some points Goldberg makes generalizations that do not capture the texture of the many significant shifts in Western Civilization; that is a necessary technique in a book like this that tries to explain the influences on a complex, centuries-long period of social change. As with impressionist art, the technique works if one steps back from the resultant artifact to see how the smudges of color present a beautiful landscape when considered in aggregate. On the whole, his book is a well-researched, good faith effort to argue that the solution is to rebuild the social structures between government and the individual that made Western material prosperity and provided the best means to pursue genuine human flourishing.
Andrew J. Spencer (PhD, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary) lives in Monroe, MI with his family. He is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Faith, Work and Economics, and writes regularly at EthicsAndCulture.com.