America and the Art of the Possible: Restoring National Vitality in an Age of Decay
by Christopher Buskirk
Encounter Books, 2023; xxv + 162 pp.
Christopher Buskirk is the publisher and editor of the magazine American Greatness, and the title of that magazine, like that of the book, shows his principal concern. How can the American people regain the sense of optimism and purpose which we once had but have now lost?
Buskirk says that in
the public sphere, civilizational vitality is shown in a capacity for collective action, which is rooted in what the fourteenth-century Arab philosopher Ibn Khaldun called asabiyya. This concept can be understood as social cohesion, national or civilizational purpose, a feeling of being in it together and for the same reasons. (p. xi)
Later in the book, asabiyya is characterized as “a combination of solidarity, cohesion, trust, and shared purpose” (p. 109).
Buskirk argues that economic growth is central to this national sense of purpose but that this has now fallen off. As a result, middle- and working-class people no longer look forward to the future with confidence. He discusses various reasons for America’s national decay, including “institutional betrayal and elite sociopathology, “and offers suggestions about how the sense of purpose may be regained.”
I believe Buskirk’s project of reclaiming American greatness is fundamentally misconceived, but he has some good ideas. In what follows, I’ll first talk about some of the good ideas and then indicate what is wrong with his central thesis.
Buskirk rightly says that economic growth depends on producing real goods and services but that in recent decades, the nation’s economic resources have been diverted into dubious financial enterprises:
As productivity growth has slowed, the economy has become more financialized, which means that resources are increasingly channeled into means of extracting wealth from the productive economy instead of producing goods and services. Peter Thiel said that a simple way to understand financialization is that it represents the increasing influence of companies whose main business or source of value is producing little pieces of paper that essentially say, “You owe me money.” (p. 12, emphasis in original)
In describing financialization, he is aware of the vital importance of the Cantillon effect and cites a paper by Louis Rouanet, a former summer fellow at the Mises Institute (p. 146n14). As Buskirk notes:
The effect was first described in the eighteenth century by Richard Cantillon after he observed the results of introducing a paper money system. He noted that the first people to receive the new money saw their income rise, while the last to receive it saw a decline in their purchasing power because of consumer price inflation. The first to receive newly created money are banks and other financial institutions. They are called “Cantillon insiders,” a term coined by Nick Szabo, and they get the most benefit. (p. 13)
Buskirk is also on target in warning about the dangers of large government debt, the increase of which he also ties to the Cantillon effect: “Increases in aggregate debt throughout society are a predictable result of the Cantillon effect in a financialized economy” (p. 17).
Despite these insights, Buskirk is by no means a supporter of the free market. He says:
The telos of the globalist order is purely materialist. In that sense it is the apotheosis of modern liberalism, which views man as a walking stomach. This is apparent in Marxism but there is a similar understanding present in Austrian economics. The Austrians have the better of the argument with Marx and are much closer to the truth about human nature, but both see man primarily as a collection of appetites. They mistake a part for the whole. (p. 92)
This is a gross mistake about Austrian economics, which applies to all human actions and is not restricted to desires for material goods. Ludwig von Mises recognizes that people aim to increase their material welfare, but Buskirk is hardly in a position to dispute this, since an increase in productivity is basic to his own project. (One also wonders, by the way, why he takes Marxism to be a variety of modern liberalism.)
Buskirk’s complaint against free-market supporters rests in part on a confusion, but the source of this confusion is a genuine difference between his view and libertarianism. He contrasts those who limit their lives to immediate gratification with those who plan for their long-term future and wrongly puts libertarians in the former group. Why does he make this mistake? The reason is that he thinks that if you are concerned for your long-term future and reject the hedonism of the moment, you will seek to be part of a nation that aims for “greatness,” in his sense.
According to Burkirk, such people must ask, “How can we become part of a unified nation with a sense of purpose, as we once were?” But it by no means follows that we must ask this. When we consider the disastrous failures of politics, it is the better part of wisdom to endeavor to create a society in which the state is drastically restricted or done away with altogether, rather than to join together to build vast enterprises under the direction of the state, as Buskirk wishes.
There is a further anomaly in Buskirk’s position. He criticizes, in my view rightly, the notion of “civil religion.” The term points to a problem, he says:
It is a neologism that suggests the merger of religion and politics to create a secular creed. Some people think this creed supplements true religion in the public sphere, but in reality it is a competitor that cannot tolerate any other gods. . . . The political problem is that when the stakes of a conflict are high enough and the disagreements are over fundamental ideas of right and wrong, civil religion alone simply can’t carry the weight. (p. 29)
He asks, “Can so-called civil religion fill the same social, cultural, and political role as revealed religion? History provides no examples. Do people even want this type of totalizing ‘civil religion’ or is it more natural simply to have politics and true religion?” (p. 29). Is this not to instrumentalize “true” religion, viewing it as having a role to play in the idolatrous worship of the nation? Religion becomes a means by which the nation aiming for greatness preserves social stability. Erik Peterson long ago criticized this notion as anti-Christian, as applied to the Roman Empire, in his classic article, “Monotheism as a Political Problem.” Peterson argued that theologians who supported the emperor favored dubious doctrines that justified imperial control of the church. Readers of Buskirk’s book would do well to study this article and absorb its lessons before accepting Buskirk’s quest for national greatness.