Jonathan Rauch, a Brookings Institution scholar and dear friend, has written what may be one of the most important, and difficult, books of this difficult era: The Constitution of Knowledge: a defense of truth. It confronts the problem behind our problems: the breakdown of our ability to agree on truth or how to discern it. Rauch thus strikes a blow against tyranny.
Jonathan, never one to cut corners, takes us back through ancient Greece, through the great thinkers of the Middle Ages and the Enlightenment, through America’s founding thinkers. It’s a deep dive into the complexity of how we “know” what we think we “know.”
Trigger warning! The Constitution of Knowledge is a tour de force and, thus, “unreviewable.” Every page, often every paragraph, is so densely packed as to require a full-length review to do it justice. I thus am reduced to mere commentary: If you seek for his monument, look around you.
Rauch may be America’s most beloved heretic. Before you take out the kindling and Zippo bear in mind that “heretic” derives from Greek hairetikos, “able to choose.” He rises to John Stuart Mill’s standard: “Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric.”
Eccentric? Who else has ever compiled such an eclectic chorus of advance praise as George Will, Anne Applebaum, Neal Stephenson (the reigning grandmaster of cyberpunk!), Jon Meacham, Mitch Daniels, Jr., and Jonathan Haidt among other consequential figures. No matter your political stripe you will find yourself in good company.
Even when Jonathan has gone wrong he is never unkind or uninteresting or irrelevant. Many have been the times that I generously pointed out to him the errors in his logic, and decisively. To no avail! Yet never has he lost his dignity, Rauch’s defining characteristic.
Jon has written a book for the ages. Thus, it is easy to forgive him for having committed what would have been a cardinal sin in mere journalism of burying his lede on page 47. There, he reveals how achingly immediate is his cause, the defense of liberalism (as in liberty): economic, political, epistemic. Rauch:
“Economic liberalism — market cooperation — is a species-transforming piece of social software, one which enables humans to function far above our designed capacity.
“Political liberalism grapples with another version of the cooperation problem: can we make rules which channel self-interest, ambition, and bias to benefit society as a whole? Can we provide social stability without squelching social dynamism, and without submitting to a Hobbesian authority? Yet another version of the cooperation problem preoccupies epistemic liberalism: can people with sharp differences of opinion be induced to cooperate in building knowledge, again providing both stability and dynamism without recourse to authoritarianism?”
What makes this the lede, however buried, and what makes this book so potentially consequential, is that it addresses perhaps the most crucial issue of our times: the struggle between liberalism (or neoliberalism) and its opposite, what Applebaum describes as “a global epidemic of nihilistic trolling, manipulative disinformation, and addictive outrage, modern democracies are facing an existential challenge ...”
The attack on neoliberalism is pervasive but largely unrecognized. As Ganesh Sitarman wrote in the December 23, 2019 The New Republic The Collapse of Neoliberalism: The long-dominant ideology brought us forever wars, the Great Recession, and extreme inequality. Good riddance.
Aldo Madariaga, in Jacobin this month proclaims Neoliberalism Has Always Been a Threat to Democracy. Andrew Marantz in the May 24 New Yorker’s Are We Entering a New Political Era?:“’We’ve already seen, under Trump, an early version of what a right-wing post-neoliberal order might look like,’ Gerstle said. ‘Ethno-nationalist, anti-democratic, trending toward authoritarianism.’ A progressive version of post-neoliberalism is ‘harder to nail down,’ he continued, but ‘we might be starting to see it unfold under Biden.’
After taking us through his historical tour and defining both the difficulties and the essence of the constitution of knowledge, Rauch then takes us on a tour of our illiberal Inferno, starting with Ayatollah Khomeini’s calling for (and precipitating) the deaths of many involved with the publication of Salmon Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses as the genesis block for cancel culture and tells the tale of its proponents’ quest for a Gramscian cultural hegemony. Then, Rauch lays out, in powerful, practical terms how to return our culture to the Paradiso of liberty.
Erudite champions of systemic liberalism (as in liberty, neo- or classical) are few and far between. If The Constitution of Knowledge: a defense of truth triggers a badly overdue larger national conversation there is hope that liberal republicanism, the warp and woof of the American political system woven by Madison, shall yet endure.
Liberty is at stake. Read Rauch to strike a blow against tyranny.
Ralph Benko, co-author of "The Capitalist Manifesto" and chairman and co-founder of "The Capitalist League," is the founder of The Prosperity Caucus and is an original Kemp-era member of the Supply-Side revolution that propelled the Dow from 814 to its current heights and world GDP from $11T to $88T. Read Ralph Benko's reports — More Here.
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