I’ve written previously (most recently here) about Lee Harris’ latest book, The Next American Civil War: The Populist Revolt Against the Liberal Elite.
I’m now reading Chapter 6, “The Life Cycle of Liberty”, in which Mr. Harris discusses the tradeoff that must inevitably occur between liberty and civilization. The general rule is: “The more civilization, the less liberty”. That is, the necessary conditions for civilized living demand more rules and constraints than, for example, life at a frontier outpost in the wilderness.
Liberty tends to come to the fore during times of great chaos and societal disruption. If the resulting cultural response does not emphasize innovation, experiment, and fresh thinking — if the group remains trapped in rigid modes of reaction — then the existing order will fall, and be overrun by other groups or outside invaders.
Lee Harris concentrates mainly on the United States, but the same principle may be applied elsewhere in the Western world. Our current civilizational stasis was made possible by the fiat money system and the welfare state, and when these twin functions fail — as they most assuredly will, within a generation at the latest — then we may expect chaotic conditions to emerge, accompanied by levels of violence and destruction that have not been seen in Europe since 1945, nor in the United States since 1865.
What will happen after that is anybody’s guess. If our libertarian tendencies are not strong enough to allow us to find new and creative forms of self-governance, then the most likely outcome is that the West will be overrun by Islam and enter a new Dark Age of indefinite duration.
From pages 97-99 of The Next American Civil War:
In 1902 J. M. Barrie, the future author of Peter Pan, wrote The Admirable Crichton, a wildly successful stage comedy that would run for 828 performances. Barrie’s play offers a rare, amusing illustration of the topsy-turvy effects of catastrophe on a hidebound traditional order. A British aristocrat, Lord Loam, sails off on his yacht, with his family, friends, and servants, including his butler named Crichton. Lord Loam is a devout socialist: He believes that all men are equal. According to Lord Loam, there is no difference between him and any other man. He even condescends to say that he and his butler are brothers under the skin and therefore perfectly equal. Crichton, on the other hand, could not disagree more. Despite the fact that he is close to the bottom of the social ladder, Crichton is a staunch defender of the established hierarchy of his time. There must always be lords, and there must always be butters who wait on them. That is the way of things, and it is beyond human power to change the natural order. (Crichton would have approved of the politics of both Samuel Johnson and Edmund Burke.)
A disaster at sea dispels Lord Loam’s socialist illusion. It is Crichton’s natural leadership ability that saves the shipwrecked survivors after they have scrambled onto the nearest desert island. Overnight a new inequality springs up. Lord Loam, helpless to look after himself, becomes Crichton’s butler. Crichton, now the chieftain of the island colony, plans to marry Lord Loam’s daughter, whom he has always loved in his heart of hearts, as she has always loved him in hers. Alas, their nuptial plans are cruelly disappointed when a ship appears out of the blue to “rescue” them. Back home, everyone returns, without much enthusiasm, to their former roles in society. The only change is the bittersweet sense of collective loss — somehow everything seemed better arranged on that island.
When a catastrophe shipwrecks a long-established social order, there will be a jolting return to the law of the jungle. This plunge back into chaos will bring down the mighty, but for others it will come as a golden opportunity. Individuals who counted for nothing before the catastrophe now find they have exactly those talents required for getting ahead in the shattered ruins of the ancien régime. Certainly luck will play a role, but by and large, the individuals who best adjust to the new circumstances will be those most fit to deal with these circumstances. If survival requires brute strength, then the brute will be the fittest; if cunning, then the cunning will be the fittest. The toppled aristocracy, formed by tradition and chosen by birth, will be quickly replaced by an oligarchy based on the possession of the requisite survival skills, often quite predatory and brutal skills. Nevertheless, a revolutionary new principle is at work. For in the emergent social order, success will be decided by merit and not birth status. A meritocracy always follows the shattering of the “cake of custom,” though what counts as merit depends on the nature of the crisis.
Because a monolithic tradition is virtually inescapable as long as everything is going smoothly, freedom and independence must originate in social breakdown, in chaos, in catastrophe, in eruptions of the unknown and the unfamiliar. It is only when the principle of social inertia has failed that men are forced to improvise their own rules and routines. Only then are men compelled to take charge of their own fate — compelled simply because there is no one else to take charge of it for them.