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Liberalism’s sin was born in the Cold War Himmelfarb disabused the Right of naive progressivism

Should liberals really channel Reagan? (Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

Should liberals really channel Reagan? (Universal History Archive/Getty Images)


August 29, 2023   7 mins

If the contemporary political scene is strewn with wreckage, it is clearer than ever that “neoconservatism” and “neoliberalism” did much of the damage. More than any other, these two ideologies have afflicted both the centre-right and centre-left, fostering the sense of decay to which Margaret Thatcher’s insistence that “there is no such thing as society, only individual men and women, and families” has now led. The public sector was abandoned, as if individuals and families could make it on their own.

How did these two movements succeed in tearing up the fabric of Western society? Neoliberalism envisioned governance for the sake of individual and corporate enterprise, rolling back redistributive and regulatory policy in the name of “freedom”. Neoconservatism, meanwhile, though later more famous as a foreign-policy doctrine, was initially rooted in a scepticism towards domestic class and racial justice. Under the auspices of both schools of thought, the state was reconceived and morality was “restored” to the private sphere of “family values”.

No intellectual better embodied this peculiar fusion of neoliberalism and neoconservatism than the late historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, who died in 2019. Indeed, she was one of the most important and forgotten ideological pioneers of our times: an intellectual who did as much as her better-known husband, Irving Kristol, to invent the neoliberal-neoconservative complex.

Himmelfarb’s origin story is revelatory for two reasons. First, thanks to the central role Christianity played in her analysis (despite her Jewish background), her work serves as a challenge to those Christians belatedly joining the Left in attacking neoliberalism, and who do not appreciate how Christianity helped to cement neoliberalism’s position in the Republican Party in the first place. Second, even more importantly, Himmelfarb’s emphasis on religion forces secular liberals to re-examine their own participation in the Reagan revolution and its aftermath — the “Age of Reagan” has been one that later Democrats such as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have been pleased to inhabit. For the unholy combination of neoliberalism and neoconservatism goes much further back than the Sixties, and into the era of Cold War liberalism in the Forties — since that is when Himmelfarb got her start.

Born in New York 1922 to Jewish immigrant parents, Himmelfarb studied at Brooklyn College before enrolling at the University of Chicago as a graduate student, having met Irving in 1940 at a meeting of the Young People’s Socialist League, a Trotskyist militant group they both frequented for a time in Brooklyn, where both hailed from. At Chicago, alone after her husband departed for service in Western Europe as an infantryman, Himmelfarb was drawn to the work of the 19th-century Anglo-German Catholic liberal Lord Acton — and ended up writing what became her first book on him, published in 1952. Her aim was to push back against the emergence of an optimistic and progressive liberalism that, she feared, shaded too easily into Leftism.

Acton, born in 1834, was a strange kind of liberal in his own lifetime, and only became a canonical figure in the middle of the 20th century. He was a Roman Catholic who resisted papal infallibility, his mind fixed on eternal moral certainties in an age that placed an emphasis on the evolving nature of liberal civilisation; he was suspicious of the nation state at a time when liberals treated it as their main instrument of progress; he even became sympathetic to socialism, at a time when liberalism so often took the form of economic libertarianism.

Amid the consolidation of the Cold War in the late Forties, as the world reckoned with a rising tide of totalitarianism, Acton’s adage about the corrupting power of absolute power assumed a new currency. No less than Friedrich Hayek, the godfather of neoliberalism, suggested to Himmelfarb, on a research trip in 1946 to England, that he was starting an Actonian club to resist the “totalitarianism” of the new planning state  (which ultimately became the neoliberal Mont Pùlerin Society). For Himmelfarb, however, Acton’s revival initially served a very different purpose: to immunise liberals from dreaming big and instead recognise that politics is a scene of transgression rather than a forum of opportunity. By emphasising this, Himmelfarb helped define what later Cold War liberal Judith Shklar immortally dubbed “the liberalism of fear”, a replacement of the ambitious and optimistic liberalism of the 19th century with a more cautious, disabused and threat-oriented creed.

Like many other Cold War liberals, Himmelfarb had a particular (and mistaken) diagnosis of how liberalism could easily self-destruct. If liberals called for too much emancipation and progress, she thought, they would connive with evil forces to bring them about. They would, in other words, easily fall for the communist promise to achieve good things through immoral means. And if they neglected Christianity’s insight into the endurance of original sin, liberals would treat the state as a workable device of liberation and progress, rather than regarding it as a malignant expression of eternal depravity. The consequences, she warned, would be devastating, giving people who are tarnished by original sin the capacity to use state power to kill millions.

Though a Jew concerned about the abuse of minorities, Himmelfarb laid extraordinary emphasis on this point, in turn making Christianity integral to Cold War liberalism. While liberals had spent the prior century often viewing religious forces as an enemy, she called for a new liberalism based on Acton’s Christian vision of sin. Acton, who had rejected “integralist” forms of Christian Right-wing politics that longed for a return to medieval theocracy, was principally important for reforming secular liberals who sought to secure freedom against secular totalitarianisms such as Nazi and Soviet tyranny. He recognised, Himmelfarb wrote, “the presence of eternal and absolute” morality, in contrast to liberals who “had no sense of the religious sanctity of those principles” and compromised away freedom.

Indeed, it was liberal Christianity, Himmelfarb wrote, that might turn out to be essential in a Cold War world that knew the threat of religious authoritarianism even as secular revolution could bring even worse oppression. “Clerics are not alone in carrying the banner of religion,” she wrote. “They have been joined by a multitude of those who, in Acton’s own time, would almost certainly have been in the camp of the opposition.” Liberals needed to get over their anticlericalism, was the message, and use religion to save themselves.

It had to be the right kind of Christianity, of course. Acton was an Augustinian, and his vision of sin forbade excessive optimism. Humanity couldn’t save itself; man’s fallen nature made power a permanent threat. Instead, the Christianity useful for Cold War liberals saw God as the external judge on history, where the notion of secular progress supposedly leading to human emancipation was little more than an alibi for crime. For Acton, Himmelfarb explained, “history did not have a meaning or purpose in itself; it acquired meaning only by comparison with a fixed moral standard outside it, and purpose by fulfilling a moral end imposed upon it”.

This Augustinian core of Cold War liberalism is often conveniently forgotten. In an otherwise excellent recent book, for example, Louis Menand paints a portrait of Cold War liberalism as a utopia of innovative modernism, rather than one rooted in the religiosity that suffused the Forties and Fifties. One Cold War liberal icon, Oxford don Isaiah Berlin, divulged once in a letter to another such icon, American historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., that he “had never read a line” of Lord Acton’s. Yet that did not stop Irving Kristol from crediting Berlin for “assuming the role of Lord Acton” as “conscience and critic” of believers in secular progress. And in spite of his own private reservations about a faith-based liberalism, Berlin understood that it defined the age of Cold War liberalism, writing in 1952 that “one of the most notable characteristics of the literary and artistic scenes” was “the revival of religion”, whatever its “pulverisation of
 all the older forms of liberalism [and] secularism”.

Here is where Himmelfarb becomes representative of broader trends. Of all the Cold War liberals of this era — including Lionel Trilling, the Columbia English professor whom she and her husband lionised — Himmelfarb knew most about Judaism, though that was not saying much. For these Jews, ancestral preservation was hardly a powerful driving force — though there was a little more in Himmelfarb’s case because of her family’s observance of custom and ritual, and she took classes at the Jewish Theological Seminary while an undergraduate. For the most part, however, the identity politics of staying true to Judaism was not a significant motivation, compared to their very explicit appeal to Christian values to serve political goals. For Himmelfarb, Augustinian Christianity was a kind of ideological training ground for the intellectualism she conceived.

During the same period, Irving Kristol, schooled by his wife, also pursued a new religious orthodoxy, including a kind of neo-Actonian Judaism that rejected the optimism towards progress so prevalent among earlier liberals. Indeed, Kristol’s engagements with Christianity, with its emphasis on the permanence of sin, fed his epic denunciation, in January 1948, of modernising accounts of Judaism that presented it as a progressive social ethics rather than an acceptance of the strict limits that evil places on human possibility. This wasn’t because either Himmelfarb or her husband ever embraced observant Judaism, let alone converted to the Christian faith. It was because they believed Acton’s neo-orthodoxy was politically useful.

Both, in other words, fit well with Hannah Arendt’s quip that Orthodox Judaism was the Judaism that she didn’t practice. We can broaden her serious joke to the observation that, for a striking number of Cold War liberals like Himmelfarb and Kristol, Augustinian neo-orthodoxy was the Christianity they wanted everyone else to adopt. It would save them from the enthusiasm and naivetĂ© of trust in the state.

Himmelfarb’s dalliance with Acton, and her Christianisation of liberalism, was fateful in the long run. It morphed, after all, into the successor views Himmelfarb soon adopted, neoconservatism and neoliberalism, with an emphasis on “family values” as the crucible of morality and the state as dangerous or fickle. Yet this wasn’t an immediate journey.

That Himmelfarb wasn’t immediately a neoconservative or neoliberal prepared to indict the welfare state in the name of Hayek’s market fundamentalism is made clear by two facts. First, in her early studies, she saw Acton as the great alternative to Edmund Burke, whereas Hayek saw them as equally inspirational. “When Liberals finally came to admit that Conservatism might be a store-house of political wisdom,” Himmelfarb complained as late as 1953, “they settled upon Burke as the arbiter of politics and morality. But the insights of Conservatism might have been more readily found in
 an Acton, who set absolute morality against history.” Second, she registered that Acton’s liberalism could support social reform. Acton had come to insist that property was not absolutely sacrosanct even in a liberal state, and even repudiated — at his “most radical”, Himmelfarb said — the affection for laissez-faire economics of his youth. For a time, she outright rejected Hayek’s competing appropriation of their common sage.

Clearly, then, it would require a step beyond Cold War liberalism in a Christian key for Himmelfarb to reach her mature neoconservatism. While continuing to appeal to morality, she gave up her insistence on Acton’s liberal Christianity, even as she emphasised Christianity as a cultural force (and a source of many evangelical voters). By the Eighties, she was a crucial contributor to the intellectual destruction of the welfare ideals that were actually triumphing after the Second World War, while she was rifling through Acton’s writings. An activist state, she insisted, “consigns” the poor “to a culture of dependency and degrades those it professes to help”.

But everything — including the political movements Himmelfarb helped to rationalise, and which continue to warp the world — has to start somewhere. Easily the most consequential move in Himmelfarb’s evolution was her redefinition of liberalism in a Christian key, because it was only a short step from there to her mature views. If the trial of neoconservatism and neoliberalism continues in future years, Himmelfarb’s case suggests that the inquest will have to reach Cold War liberalism too.


Samuel Moyn is the Chancellor Kent Professor of Law and History at Yale University. His most recent book is Liberalism against Itself: Cold War Intellectuals and the Making of Our Times (2023).

samuelmoyn

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T Bone
T Bone
10 months ago

Well researched article but I don’t buy the source of blame.  The West is not collapsing because of past actions by Reagan and Thatcher to favor family values and the free market while eschewing large government redistribution programs. No, the West is collapsing because of disintegrated culture caused by lax immigration policies that don’t promote integration and infiltrative postcolonial social engineering campaigns
that use unaccountable bureacracies like Universities to push Anti-Western propaganda. Leaders are now Activists demanding the State redistribute “cultural and social capital” by creating an illiberal, intolerant Identity Hierarchy as a form of reparatory justice.  Universities now reject the idea of merit and competition as a force of progress and instead promote doublethink like Identity as a site of both oppression and strength.  What’s the end goal? Certainly not social cohesion.

It’s an environment designed to encourage reckless spending in the form Public-Private wealth transfers to what the State determines are “worthy causes” leading to excess money printing creating inflation.  In this form of Corporate Cronyism the “State Partners” are Lobbyists favored by virtue of their promotion of “State interests.” And by State Interests, I mean the interests of the people running the State. Add in decades of excess government spending on counterproductive nation building and you’ve got yourself a dysfunctional spoils system that reproduces failure and continually justifies more transfer payments as a remedy for that same failure.

Simon Denis
Simon Denis
10 months ago
Reply to  T Bone

Well said. His notion that “the public sector was abandoned” is sheer junk. With tax at a seventy year high and the NHS more bloated than ever, the public sector has been indulged, embraced, canonised and corrupted. As you say, the real damage has been inflicted not by neo-Cons, although they have much to answer for, nor by neo-liberals, who actually did much good, but by neo-Marxists, who opened the borders of countries whose culture they proceeded to denigrate and dismantle, making assimilation impossible and guaranteeing tension. There lies the seed of our destruction, there we find the origin of our decline. That the learned professor can ignore all this testifies only to the sturdiness of his “bien pensant” blinkers.

P N
P N
10 months ago
Reply to  T Bone

Spot on.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
10 months ago
Reply to  T Bone

The most pernicious piece of legislation ever fostered on this country (UK) is the wretched ‘Commission for Racial Equality’ now renamed the ‘Equality and Human Rights Commission’!
Established by a Labour Government in 1976 its first chairman just had to be a ‘bien pensant’Tory, the late Sir David Lane.
At the time the late Lord Denning described its powers as being like those of the “days of the Inquisition “.
With an annual budget of close to ÂŁ20 million it continuously stokes the fires of racial discord and should have been disbanded years ago! But sadly even the late late Lady Thatcher felt unable to act.
We are now living with the consequences.

Last edited 10 months ago by Charles Stanhope
Bret Larson
Bret Larson
10 months ago
Reply to  T Bone

After reading the first paragraph, I made a bet with myself that the content of the most upvoted would be thus reply. You have to give it to the big government totalitarian types. They will throw any sort of argument at the wall just to see the splatter. My guess is they actually believe this stuff.

Chipoko
Chipoko
10 months ago
Reply to  T Bone

Well said, Sir!

Simon Denis
Simon Denis
10 months ago
Reply to  T Bone

Well said. His notion that “the public sector was abandoned” is sheer junk. With tax at a seventy year high and the NHS more bloated than ever, the public sector has been indulged, embraced, canonised and corrupted. As you say, the real damage has been inflicted not by neo-Cons, although they have much to answer for, nor by neo-liberals, who actually did much good, but by neo-Marxists, who opened the borders of countries whose culture they proceeded to denigrate and dismantle, making assimilation impossible and guaranteeing tension. There lies the seed of our destruction, there we find the origin of our decline. That the learned professor can ignore all this testifies only to the sturdiness of his “bien pensant” blinkers.

P N
P N
10 months ago
Reply to  T Bone

Spot on.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
10 months ago
Reply to  T Bone

The most pernicious piece of legislation ever fostered on this country (UK) is the wretched ‘Commission for Racial Equality’ now renamed the ‘Equality and Human Rights Commission’!
Established by a Labour Government in 1976 its first chairman just had to be a ‘bien pensant’Tory, the late Sir David Lane.
At the time the late Lord Denning described its powers as being like those of the “days of the Inquisition “.
With an annual budget of close to ÂŁ20 million it continuously stokes the fires of racial discord and should have been disbanded years ago! But sadly even the late late Lady Thatcher felt unable to act.
We are now living with the consequences.

Last edited 10 months ago by Charles Stanhope
Bret Larson
Bret Larson
10 months ago
Reply to  T Bone

After reading the first paragraph, I made a bet with myself that the content of the most upvoted would be thus reply. You have to give it to the big government totalitarian types. They will throw any sort of argument at the wall just to see the splatter. My guess is they actually believe this stuff.

Chipoko
Chipoko
10 months ago
Reply to  T Bone

Well said, Sir!

T Bone
T Bone
10 months ago

Well researched article but I don’t buy the source of blame.  The West is not collapsing because of past actions by Reagan and Thatcher to favor family values and the free market while eschewing large government redistribution programs. No, the West is collapsing because of disintegrated culture caused by lax immigration policies that don’t promote integration and infiltrative postcolonial social engineering campaigns
that use unaccountable bureacracies like Universities to push Anti-Western propaganda. Leaders are now Activists demanding the State redistribute “cultural and social capital” by creating an illiberal, intolerant Identity Hierarchy as a form of reparatory justice.  Universities now reject the idea of merit and competition as a force of progress and instead promote doublethink like Identity as a site of both oppression and strength.  What’s the end goal? Certainly not social cohesion.

It’s an environment designed to encourage reckless spending in the form Public-Private wealth transfers to what the State determines are “worthy causes” leading to excess money printing creating inflation.  In this form of Corporate Cronyism the “State Partners” are Lobbyists favored by virtue of their promotion of “State interests.” And by State Interests, I mean the interests of the people running the State. Add in decades of excess government spending on counterproductive nation building and you’ve got yourself a dysfunctional spoils system that reproduces failure and continually justifies more transfer payments as a remedy for that same failure.

David Webb
David Webb
10 months ago

It’s very odd that such a thoughtful article by an eminent academic should begin with a comment on Margaret Thatcher that would sound banal if coming from a teenage activist.
Surely Professor Moyn has read the whole interview (for a women’s weekly magazine published in 1987) 
 https://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/106689
Thatcher was stating the obvious link between entitlements and obligations – how such straightforward logic leads to a ‘sense of decay’ rather escapes me.

Seb Dakin
Seb Dakin
10 months ago
Reply to  David Webb

Thank you for posting that link. “No such thing as society” is so often misunderstood that you wonder if it isn’t actually being deliberately misrepresented.

David Jennings
David Jennings
10 months ago
Reply to  David Webb

Agreed. For those who will not follow your link to the entire article (recommend it!) here is the relevant excerpt:
I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand “I have a problem, it is the Government’s job to cope with it!” or “I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!” “I am homeless, the Government must house me!” and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing. There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then also to help look after our neighbour and life is a reciprocal business â€Š
Again, the full interview is here:
https://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/106689
 

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
10 months ago
Reply to  David Webb

Thank you for pointing this out so clearly and referencing it. One of the most misused partial filletings of what the lady said

Seb Dakin
Seb Dakin
10 months ago
Reply to  David Webb

Thank you for posting that link. “No such thing as society” is so often misunderstood that you wonder if it isn’t actually being deliberately misrepresented.

David Jennings
David Jennings
10 months ago
Reply to  David Webb

Agreed. For those who will not follow your link to the entire article (recommend it!) here is the relevant excerpt:
I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand “I have a problem, it is the Government’s job to cope with it!” or “I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!” “I am homeless, the Government must house me!” and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing. There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then also to help look after our neighbour and life is a reciprocal business â€Š
Again, the full interview is here:
https://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/106689
 

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
10 months ago
Reply to  David Webb

Thank you for pointing this out so clearly and referencing it. One of the most misused partial filletings of what the lady said

David Webb
David Webb
10 months ago

It’s very odd that such a thoughtful article by an eminent academic should begin with a comment on Margaret Thatcher that would sound banal if coming from a teenage activist.
Surely Professor Moyn has read the whole interview (for a women’s weekly magazine published in 1987) 
 https://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/106689
Thatcher was stating the obvious link between entitlements and obligations – how such straightforward logic leads to a ‘sense of decay’ rather escapes me.

Graeme
Graeme
10 months ago

Yet *another* UnHerd article that misquotes Mrs Thatcher’s statement. At least this one includes the second part of the sentence, typically omitted. Did the writer live through the 1980s? Was it perfect? No. But is that era the source of the degenerate corruption that is destroying every civilised value in front of our eyes, today? Don’t be ridiculous. We were a robust, open-minded and outgoing country, until Blair decided to rub our noses in what has become our future.

Graeme
Graeme
10 months ago

Yet *another* UnHerd article that misquotes Mrs Thatcher’s statement. At least this one includes the second part of the sentence, typically omitted. Did the writer live through the 1980s? Was it perfect? No. But is that era the source of the degenerate corruption that is destroying every civilised value in front of our eyes, today? Don’t be ridiculous. We were a robust, open-minded and outgoing country, until Blair decided to rub our noses in what has become our future.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
10 months ago

“Margaret Thatcher’s insistence that “there is no such thing as society, only individual men and women, and families” has now led. The public sector was abandoned, as if individuals and families could make it on their own.”
What a dishonest load of BS. And the author masquerades as a university Chancellor and Professor of Law and History at Yale University, god help us
Thatcher’s point was that people have responsibilities and you cannot simply dump your responsibilities and expect the state to step in and pick up the tab.
As to the public sector being abandoned, it is the one thing that continues to grow an grow whatever the economic climate with those people in the real economy working harder and harder to fund it as it sits there like a huge always hungry cuckoo

Last edited 10 months ago by Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Gordon Arta
Gordon Arta
10 months ago

Yes, it’s a deliberate misunderstanding of what Thatcher said that keeps being trotted out, and completely undermines any force of argument the author might have. And the parasites at both ends of the social and financial scales are threatening the health, and survival, of the host.

Rocky Martiano
Rocky Martiano
10 months ago
Reply to  Gordon Arta

“And the parasites at both ends of the social and financial scales are threatening the health, and survival, of the host.”
Your last sentence is more profound than anything expressed in the word salad of the original piece by Prof. Moyne.

Last edited 10 months ago by Rocky Martiano
Rocky Martiano
Rocky Martiano
10 months ago
Reply to  Gordon Arta

“And the parasites at both ends of the social and financial scales are threatening the health, and survival, of the host.”
Your last sentence is more profound than anything expressed in the word salad of the original piece by Prof. Moyne.

Last edited 10 months ago by Rocky Martiano
UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
10 months ago

Public sector has been abandoned and cut brutally. Where have you been for the past 13 years?

Laurence Siegel
Laurence Siegel
10 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader
Last edited 10 months ago by Laurence Siegel
Laurence Siegel
Laurence Siegel
10 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader
Last edited 10 months ago by Laurence Siegel
Gordon Arta
Gordon Arta
10 months ago

Yes, it’s a deliberate misunderstanding of what Thatcher said that keeps being trotted out, and completely undermines any force of argument the author might have. And the parasites at both ends of the social and financial scales are threatening the health, and survival, of the host.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
10 months ago

Public sector has been abandoned and cut brutally. Where have you been for the past 13 years?

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
10 months ago

“Margaret Thatcher’s insistence that “there is no such thing as society, only individual men and women, and families” has now led. The public sector was abandoned, as if individuals and families could make it on their own.”
What a dishonest load of BS. And the author masquerades as a university Chancellor and Professor of Law and History at Yale University, god help us
Thatcher’s point was that people have responsibilities and you cannot simply dump your responsibilities and expect the state to step in and pick up the tab.
As to the public sector being abandoned, it is the one thing that continues to grow an grow whatever the economic climate with those people in the real economy working harder and harder to fund it as it sits there like a huge always hungry cuckoo

Last edited 10 months ago by Ethniciodo Rodenydo
P N
P N
10 months ago

Samuel Moyn’s assertion that the “wreckage”, “damage” and “decay” of our society is caused by the abandonment of the public sector rests on a number of false assumptions.
Firstly, that society is indeed wrecked or even warped. Is it? Compared to when and where? Compared to other times and other places, the UK is relatively prosperous, with relatively low crime rates, high employment, low poverty and not engaged in any wars. Sure, we could be doing better but when could we not be doing better? When is this Golden Period against which the author is comparing?
Secondly, that any wreckage or damage is caused by market failure and not policy failure. This is the classic false assumption made by many statists, whether it is the GFC of 2008 or the housing bubble of the last decade. Both of these are routinely touted by people who don’t understand economics as evidence of failures of market economies when at their heart lie policy not market failure. (The first being Clinton’s Community Reinvestment Act and the second being cheap money.)
Thirdly, that there has been any reduction in the state. We currently have the largest state in living memory with cradle to the grave welfare, government intervention in every aspect of our lives, including protecting us from high energy bills, and the largest tax burden since just after the War.
“An activist state, she insisted, “consigns” the poor “to a culture of dependency and degrades those it professes to help”.” Indeed Mr Moyn. I’m afraid your article has done nothing to disprove this.
If Mr Moyn is uncomfortable with Gertrude Himmelfarb’s Christian analysis of liberalism, perhaps he could study TS Eliot’s instead:
“By destroying traditional social habits of the people, by dissolving their natural collective consciousness into individual constituents, by licensing the opinions of the most foolish, by substituting instruction for education, by encouraging cleverness rather than wisdom, the upstart rather than the qualified, by fostering a notion of getting on, … Liberalism can prepare the way for that which is its own negation: the artificial, mechanized or brutalized control which is a desperate remedy for its chaos.”

Last edited 10 months ago by P N
Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
10 months ago
Reply to  P N

Well said. This author is an excellent writer. He’s the sort of writer better understood not by what he said, but what was left unsaid. He conceals his particular position well, but in the end, he’s just another statist who believes in managing society through government action. To be fair, almost all politicians and most intellectuals show shades of this. They simply can’t accept the reality, that Himmelfarb, Acton, and countless others were correct. That the seeds of evil exist in all humanity. We cannot escape evil through any mechanism, device, or clever scheme because it is in us, as much a part of us as good and empathy. Whatever we call it, we cannot cast it aside any more than we can cast aside our stomachs or our minds. Without it, we would be something other than human. Given this assumption, progressivism is revealed for the lunacy that it is, an exercise in futility. It is not possible to perfect humanity. Attempting to do so leads to failure, which leads to angrier, more desperate attempts, which leads to greater failure, and before you know it, death and destruction on a scale that the worst villains can scarcely imagine. Attempts to perfect humanity have come from both right and left, but they always end in the same place. Extremes of the right like Hitlerite Germany and extremes of the left like Stalinist Russia use different language, methods, and motivations, but both are an attempt to perfect humanity, and both led to the same horrible cul-de-sac, the death of millions. Progressivism is a collection of blind fools following leaders just as blind as they to imagined paradises that they have no hope of reaching if they exist at all.

Last edited 10 months ago by Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
10 months ago
Reply to  P N

Well said. This author is an excellent writer. He’s the sort of writer better understood not by what he said, but what was left unsaid. He conceals his particular position well, but in the end, he’s just another statist who believes in managing society through government action. To be fair, almost all politicians and most intellectuals show shades of this. They simply can’t accept the reality, that Himmelfarb, Acton, and countless others were correct. That the seeds of evil exist in all humanity. We cannot escape evil through any mechanism, device, or clever scheme because it is in us, as much a part of us as good and empathy. Whatever we call it, we cannot cast it aside any more than we can cast aside our stomachs or our minds. Without it, we would be something other than human. Given this assumption, progressivism is revealed for the lunacy that it is, an exercise in futility. It is not possible to perfect humanity. Attempting to do so leads to failure, which leads to angrier, more desperate attempts, which leads to greater failure, and before you know it, death and destruction on a scale that the worst villains can scarcely imagine. Attempts to perfect humanity have come from both right and left, but they always end in the same place. Extremes of the right like Hitlerite Germany and extremes of the left like Stalinist Russia use different language, methods, and motivations, but both are an attempt to perfect humanity, and both led to the same horrible cul-de-sac, the death of millions. Progressivism is a collection of blind fools following leaders just as blind as they to imagined paradises that they have no hope of reaching if they exist at all.

Last edited 10 months ago by Steve Jolly
P N
P N
10 months ago

Samuel Moyn’s assertion that the “wreckage”, “damage” and “decay” of our society is caused by the abandonment of the public sector rests on a number of false assumptions.
Firstly, that society is indeed wrecked or even warped. Is it? Compared to when and where? Compared to other times and other places, the UK is relatively prosperous, with relatively low crime rates, high employment, low poverty and not engaged in any wars. Sure, we could be doing better but when could we not be doing better? When is this Golden Period against which the author is comparing?
Secondly, that any wreckage or damage is caused by market failure and not policy failure. This is the classic false assumption made by many statists, whether it is the GFC of 2008 or the housing bubble of the last decade. Both of these are routinely touted by people who don’t understand economics as evidence of failures of market economies when at their heart lie policy not market failure. (The first being Clinton’s Community Reinvestment Act and the second being cheap money.)
Thirdly, that there has been any reduction in the state. We currently have the largest state in living memory with cradle to the grave welfare, government intervention in every aspect of our lives, including protecting us from high energy bills, and the largest tax burden since just after the War.
“An activist state, she insisted, “consigns” the poor “to a culture of dependency and degrades those it professes to help”.” Indeed Mr Moyn. I’m afraid your article has done nothing to disprove this.
If Mr Moyn is uncomfortable with Gertrude Himmelfarb’s Christian analysis of liberalism, perhaps he could study TS Eliot’s instead:
“By destroying traditional social habits of the people, by dissolving their natural collective consciousness into individual constituents, by licensing the opinions of the most foolish, by substituting instruction for education, by encouraging cleverness rather than wisdom, the upstart rather than the qualified, by fostering a notion of getting on, … Liberalism can prepare the way for that which is its own negation: the artificial, mechanized or brutalized control which is a desperate remedy for its chaos.”

Last edited 10 months ago by P N
Susan Grabston
Susan Grabston
10 months ago

Having “won” the cold war, the hubristic West seeing the end of history, forgot to mount the gates, externally and internally. From a culture of preparedness and vigilance we threw ourselves into a bonfire of vanity and hyper-liberalism leaving darker forces to penetrste our shield. The world has a difficult 8 years ahead, which should reset the current culture as reality deals a series of harsh blows. Which system emerges thereafter is the key.

Susan Grabston
Susan Grabston
10 months ago

Having “won” the cold war, the hubristic West seeing the end of history, forgot to mount the gates, externally and internally. From a culture of preparedness and vigilance we threw ourselves into a bonfire of vanity and hyper-liberalism leaving darker forces to penetrste our shield. The world has a difficult 8 years ahead, which should reset the current culture as reality deals a series of harsh blows. Which system emerges thereafter is the key.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
10 months ago

It summons up our times that Yale would allow such a partial and misleading person to occupy a professorial seat

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
10 months ago
Reply to  JR Stoker

That’s the most pertinent point of all, and brings the title of “Professor” into disrepute for the rather obvious reasons spelled out in other comments.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
10 months ago
Reply to  JR Stoker

That’s the most pertinent point of all, and brings the title of “Professor” into disrepute for the rather obvious reasons spelled out in other comments.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
10 months ago

It summons up our times that Yale would allow such a partial and misleading person to occupy a professorial seat

Christopher Chantrill
Christopher Chantrill
10 months ago

First, I have seven books by Gertrude Himmelfarb on my shelf. I don’t recognize that Himmelfarb in this piece.
Second, anyone with half a brain should know by now that “neoconservatism” and “neoliberalism” are pejoratives used by our educated class to discredit… whatever they don’t like.
Third, I notice from my ukpublicspending dot co dot uk site that UK public spending was just under 40 percent of GDP from the late 1940s to 1980. Then Thatcher took it down to 30 percent GDP in 1988. Since then it has crawled back up to 40 percent GDP and peaking at 53 percent GDP in 2021 (yay big government!).
So the author’s point is what, exactly?

Ian Cooper
Ian Cooper
10 months ago

Neo-liberalism has a great deal to answer for, it’s as much behind foolish mass immigration, for cheap labour, as the left is with its juvenile ideas of the rainbow society. It also extolled the idea of personal enrichment as opposed to wealth creation for the common good. But where it criticised welfare dependency, poor education, trade union corruption and at least for while argued for the family – the poor’s most important resource – it did good.

Ian Cooper
Ian Cooper
10 months ago

Neo-liberalism has a great deal to answer for, it’s as much behind foolish mass immigration, for cheap labour, as the left is with its juvenile ideas of the rainbow society. It also extolled the idea of personal enrichment as opposed to wealth creation for the common good. But where it criticised welfare dependency, poor education, trade union corruption and at least for while argued for the family – the poor’s most important resource – it did good.

SIMON WOLF
SIMON WOLF
10 months ago

Strong societies are based on having working class areas rooted in family values and the rule of law with the belief that with hard work they can move into the affluent suburbs.Many of todays problems have arisen because increasing amounts of people do not belief in family values or the rule of law or that they can be upwardly mobile.

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
10 months ago
Reply to  SIMON WOLF

Yes, and I’ll add, everyone is working class.

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
10 months ago
Reply to  SIMON WOLF

Yes, and I’ll add, everyone is working class.

SIMON WOLF
SIMON WOLF
10 months ago

Strong societies are based on having working class areas rooted in family values and the rule of law with the belief that with hard work they can move into the affluent suburbs.Many of todays problems have arisen because increasing amounts of people do not belief in family values or the rule of law or that they can be upwardly mobile.

Charlie Two
Charlie Two
10 months ago

Another Educated Idiot that would be better suited to the Guardian or NYT.

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
10 months ago

It would appear that the Bush clan used Christianity – and Jnr becoming a ‘born again’ conservative after wasting his life as a problem drinker – to justify their neoconservative project of a New American Century.
Rumsfeld always told Cheney that the divine vision of the United States was to wage and win the ultimate war with Russia and China. Saps like James Baker tried to build a consensus around ‘no further NATO expansion’ in the 90s, but that collapsed entirely upon Bush Jnr’s election with Rummi, Cheney, Condi and Wolfie (neocon intellectual Wolfowitz) pushing for new US manipulation of the Middle East and Eurasia beyond.

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
10 months ago

It would appear that the Bush clan used Christianity – and Jnr becoming a ‘born again’ conservative after wasting his life as a problem drinker – to justify their neoconservative project of a New American Century.
Rumsfeld always told Cheney that the divine vision of the United States was to wage and win the ultimate war with Russia and China. Saps like James Baker tried to build a consensus around ‘no further NATO expansion’ in the 90s, but that collapsed entirely upon Bush Jnr’s election with Rummi, Cheney, Condi and Wolfie (neocon intellectual Wolfowitz) pushing for new US manipulation of the Middle East and Eurasia beyond.