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Suicide of the West: Watchmakers vs Gardeners

I just received my copy of Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy, by Jonah Goldberg. The first thing I did was open it to a random page and read a random paragraph. What I  stumbled upon was corroboration of the idea I expressed in my essay Towards a Cognitive Theory of Politics in the online magazine Quillette. It’s not WHAT we think that divides us, it’s HOW we think. All social thought is downstream from psychology. Psychological profile comes first, intuitions, beliefs, values, principles, and policies follow. There are two predominant psychological profiles, metaphorically represented by Plato and Aristotle in The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization by Arthur Herman, in which he traces the two styles through 2,400 years of human history. The two styles were the intellectual and moral underpinnings of the French Revolution and the American War for Independence, respectively. Goldberg captures the essential difference between the two in his metaphor of watchmakers vs gardeners. If Goldberg’s book had come out before I wrote my essay then this idea most certainly would have been part of it. It perfectly captures the essence of the two cognitive styles. From Goldberg:

There is a decidedly deist flavor to the American founding. Deism holds that God or, “the Creator,” is like a watchmaker who makes his creation, winds it up, and then interferes no more. Some of the Founders were indeed deists, and many more were influenced by deism. And, in a sense, they did set up the machinery of liberty and then got out of the way.

But I think there is a better way to understand the Founders’ vision and how it differed from other Enlightenment projects, specifically those of Revolutionary France. America borrowed a great deal from French thought, but we cherry-picked the best bits without subscribing to their entire worldview. The philosophes and revolutionaries of Paris were far more ambitious than their counterparts in America. Partially thanks to the influence of Rousseau, they wanted to create, guide, and direct a whole new path for humanity. For all their hatred of religion, they nonetheless set out to create a new religion, a whole system of meaning for the French people. 31 Taking after Rousseau, the French believed in the perfectibility of man. The scientific revolution had granted the new intellectuals the power to create perfect societies and perfect men. As Nicolas de Condorcet put it, there is “a science that can foresee the progress of humankind, direct it, and accelerate it.” 32

The Americans rejected the perfectibility of man, believing the best government could do was take man’s nature into account and channel it toward productive ends.

Yuval Levin argues that you can see the differences in these two worldviews in the metaphors the two camps used in explaining what the state should do. The French strain emphasizes movement. The state is there to deliver the people somewhere, advance the “wheel of history,” etc. In the English version, the state is there to create a zone of liberty for people to choose their own direction. 33

One of my favorite illustrations of how this is as much a cultural disagreement as a philosophical one can be found in the differences between French and English gardens. For instance, the French gardens at Versailles, with their ornate, geometric, nature-defying designs, illustrate how the gardener imposes his vision on nature. Nature is brought to heel by reason. The classic English garden, on the other hand, was intended to let nature take its course, to let each bush, tree, and vegetable achieve its own ideal nature. The role of the English gardener was to protect his garden by weeding it, maintaining fences, and being ever watchful for predators and poachers.

The American founders were gardeners, not engineers. The government of the Founders’ Constitution is more than merely a “night watchman state,” but not very much more. It creates the rules of the garden and the gardeners and little more. This does not mean the government cannot intervene in the society or the economy. It means that, when it does so, it should be to protect liberty, which Madison defined in Federalist No. 10 as “the first object of government.” 34

As that quintessential Scottish Enlightenment thinker, Adam Smith, wrote in 1755:

Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism, but peace, easy taxes and a tolerable administration of justice; all the rest being brought by the natural course of things. All governments which thwart this natural course, which force things into another channel or which endeavor to arrest the progress of society at a particular point, are unnatural, and to support themselves are obliged to be oppressive and tyrannical. 35

I think the garden metaphor works better than the watchmaker image, because so many of the Founders were active participants in the unfolding American experiment, as George Washington called it. From Shays’ Rebellion to the First Bank of the United States, the Louisiana Purchase, and the War of 1812, the Founders were attentive gardeners in this new nation, creating the conditions for prosperity, fending off predators, and even expanding the garden itself. (pp. 152 – 154) 

– Goldberg, Jonah. Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy (Kindle Locations 2814-2848). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.


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