Trends can often lead us astray
Tuesday marked the 10-year anniversary of the passing of my old boss, William F. Buckley Jr., the founder of National Review (where I am a senior editor). This is not a column about Bill but about life and time — and how they don’t move in tandem.
In 2001, Linton “Lin” Wells, a former Navy officer turned in-house Defense Department intellectual, was asked to offer his thoughts for the Quadrennial Defense Review. Here are some excerpts:
•If you had been a security policy-maker in the world’s greatest power in 1900, you would have been a Brit, looking warily at your age-old enemy, France.
•By 1910, you would be allied with France and your enemy would be Germany.
•By 1920, World War I would have been fought and won, and you’d be engaged in a naval arms race with your erstwhile allies, the U.S. and Japan.
•By 1930, naval arms limitation treaties were in effect, the Great Depression was underway, and the defense planning standard said “no war for ten years.”
•Nine years later World War II had begun.
Wells keeps going, but you get the point. At any period in our lives, even modest predictions about the future are very unreliable. Outside theoretical physics, time moves in a linear, arithmetic progression: i.e., one day at a time. Life works differently. I can predict what the date will be 100 years from now with perfect accuracy, but I can’t begin to tell you what life will be like.
And yet, many people make straight-line projections about politics, technology and all manner of things. “Trend X has been going in this direction for the last few years,” people say, “so trend X will continue inexorably into the future.” (OK, few people actually say it like that, but you get the point.) Intellectuals are often guilty of this kind of thinking, partly because they make a living looking for patterns and trends.
Writing in 1946, George Orwell argued that reflexive belief in the “continuation of the thing that is happening” amounts to a kind of “power worship.” At various times, everyone was sure the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, or the Ottoman and the Roman empires would endure forever, because no one could imagine beyond the bars of the iron cage of the moment. Similarly, every era has been infested with business gurus who couldn’t foresee the demise or decline of Standard Oil or IBM or, these days, Amazon or Google.
Sometimes people put their faith less in the idea of power and more in the power of an idea, convincing themselves that there is an unseen algorithm guiding events. Marxism was a classic version of this. The impersonal forces of the universe guaranteed that utopian communism was the last exit of history.
But other ideas have similar power. When Orwell wrote “1984,” it was widely believed that the state — Big Brother — would use technology to oppress people. Later, people became convinced that technology would keep Big Brother at bay by liberating people. With the rise of the internet, this idea has taken hold in much of the West. The truth is that neither proposition is an iron law. Technology helped spread the Arab Spring, but it is also helping China throttle freedom. (And how did the Arab Spring turn out?)
Speaking of China, it was also widely believed that market forces, once unleashed, would unwind authoritarianism. Why? Because that’s how it worked in the past. That’s not what’s happening in China, which is why President Xi Jinping is fast on his way to becoming president for life.
Shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, Francis Fukuyama heralded the “End of History” because liberal democracy had proven itself the only legitimate form of government. Since then, authoritarianism has had something of a renaissance around the globe.
Which brings me back to Bill Buckley. When he founded National Review, Buckley wrote that part of its mission would be to “stand athwart history, yelling Stop.”
The passage, widely misunderstood, contained a powerful insight: We cannot outsource life to the clockwork of the universe. There is no teleology, no “right side of history.” We make the world we want to live in, and we have a responsibility to do that work. Bill’s friend Whittaker Chambers believed that when he renounced communism and joined the forces of freedom, he was switching to the “losing side.” Chambers was wrong because he, and people like him, made a choice to fight for the world they wanted. In short, they chose life over time. And thank God they did.
Jonah Goldberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.