Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Donald Trump and Steven Pinker: Authoritarian Populism Versus the Liberal Enlightenment

"Trade wars are good, and easy to win." 

In asserting that, Donald Trump has challenged the Liberal Enlightenment.  That challenge could play out in one of three ways.

If Trump succeeds in showing that trade wars are good--that they are economically and culturally beneficial for the United States and other countries--then he will have refuted the classical liberal claim that the global free trade in goods, services, and ideas is essential for maintaining the global progress that has occurred over the past two centuries.

If Trump sets off trade wars that turn out to be harmful and irreversible, and thus causes a global disaster through the collapse of the global order of free trade, he will have refuted the classical liberal confidence that the directional forces favoring liberal progress cannot be permanently reversed.

If Trump sets off trade wars that turn out to be harmful but reversible, this could confirm the classical liberal claim that, despite occasional setbacks, the global benefits of free trade in promoting human progress are so powerful and so clear that they cannot be permanently reversed.

In these ways, Trump's authoritarian populism challenges the Liberal Enlightenment as it's defended by Steven Pinker in his new book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.  In fact, Pinker frames much of his book as a refutation of Trump's authoritarian populism as rooted in the tradition of the right-wing Counter-Enlightenment.  Pinker has also summarized his argument in a debate a few years ago over the proposition "Do Humankind's Best Days Lie Ahead?"  Pinker and Matt Ridley defended the affirmative side against the negative side as defended by Alain de Botton and Malcolm Gladwell.  This  debate in Toronto, Canada, in 2015 was published as a book in 2016.

Pinker presents his history of human progress rooted in the Liberal Enlightenment as contrasted to the dark vision of human decline conveyed by Trump and his illiberal movement.  Pinker quotes Trump as describing "mothers and children trapped in poverty . . . an education system which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge . . . and the crime, and the gangs, and the drugs that have stolen too many lives."  He also quotes Steve Bannon as saying that we are in an "outright war" that is "expanding and metastasizing," which has been produced by a "global power structure" that has subverted "the underlying spiritual and moral foundations of Christianity" (Pinker, xvii).

Against this, Pinker praises Barack Obama for saying, in his farewell speech, that the "essential spirit of this country" comes from the Enlightenment, which is responsible for 200 years of human progress.  He also praises Obama for rejecting Trump's denial of human progress, his dark view of America, and his claim that our whole world today is in decline.

Pinker thinks Obama is correct in observing:
"If you had to choose a moment in history to be born, and you did not know ahead of time who you would be--you didn't know whether you were going to be born into a wealthy family or a poor family, what country you'd be born in, whether you were going to be a man or a woman--if you had to choose blindly what moment you'd want to be born, you'd choose now."
A Rawlsian "veil of ignorance" applied to history favors our choosing to live in the present moment--the Liberal Enlightenment moment.  The core of Pinker's book is to show how the correctness of this choice can be confirmed by facts and statistical data.  The empirical data collected and analyzed by modern science prove that the last 200 hundred years have been years of unprecedented human progress as caused by the ideas and practices of the Liberal Enlightenment.  In doing this, Pinker's book covers much of the same ground that I have covered in my series of posts on the human progress promoted by classical liberalism (herehereherehereherehereherehere, and here).

To support what he calls "the facts of human progress" (363), Pinker presents 73 charts of statistical data--similar to the charts that he employed in The Better Angels of Our Nature.  These statistical charts show trend lines of progress for at least ten of the good things in life.  (You can see many of Pinker's charts in a video of his recent lecture at the Cato Institute, which is available here.)

First, life itself.  The average human life span today is longer than ever before in human history--over seventy.

Second, health.  Many diseases that killed millions of people in the past--such as small pox and cattle plague--have been totally eliminated, and many more will soon be eliminated.  Similarly, the deaths from famine have dropped dramatically.

Third, prosperity.  In 1800, at least 85% of all human beings around the world lived in grinding poverty.  Today, less than 10% live in extreme poverty, and in a few years, it could be zero.

Fourth, peace.  Wars between powerful nations have become almost completely obsolete. Great powers have not fought a war against one another for seventy years.  There are still civil wars, but they are less destructive than interstate wars, and there are fewer of them.

Fifth, safety.  The rates of death by homicide have fallen drastically.  Even the risk from terrorists is for most of us negligible.  People today are more likely to die from bee stings than from a terrorist attack, despite the fear-mongering by Trump and others.

Sixth, freedom.  60% or more of the world's population lives in free societies.  There is more freedom--personal freedom, economic freedom, and political freedom--than ever before in human history.

Seventh, knowledge.  Throughout most of human history, most human beings (90% or more) were illiterate.  Today, this has been reversed, and most human beings (85% or more) can read.  In 1820, only about 17% of people around the world had a basic education.  Today, at least 82% have a basic education, and the trend is moving to 100%.

Eighth, human rights.  Most of the most barbaric customs in human history--such as human sacrifice, infanticide, slavery, heretic burning, torture executions, and foot binding--have been eliminated.  Other cruelties--such as capital punishment, violence against women, female genital mutilation, and the criminalization of homosexuality--are being reduced.

Ninth, gender equity.  Women today are on average better educated, freer, earning more, and more powerful than women have ever been.

Tenth, intelligence.  In every country, IQ has been rising by three points a decade.

Of course, Pinker recognizes that to see all of this as moral progress, we need to agree on some standards of moral judgment--that life is better than death, health is better than sickness, wealth is better than poverty, freedom is better than coercion, knowledge is better than ignorance, and happiness is better than misery.  Does anyone reasonably disagree with such judgments?

But then how does Pinker explain the supporters of Trump and other authoritarian populists around the world--people who apparently don't see themselves as benefitting from this global liberal progress?

One common explanation is economic inequality.  Even if people at all levels of society around the world have seen an improvement in their living standards on average, some people have benefited more than others, and the richest people have benefited the most.  Pinker's answer to this is to argue that we should not confuse inequality with poverty.  There should be no moral objection to inequality as long as everyone on average is being raised out of poverty into wealth: the rich get richer, and the poor get richer also.

One objection to this is that what really counts for people's happiness is not absolute poverty but relative poverty--that people living in material comfort and even luxury feel poor if they see others who are richer than they are.  Pinker's response is to point to surveys suggesting that people in unequal but wealthy societies are happy as long as they see some hope that they can improve their economic standing, and as long as they see the wealth of the richest people as somehow merited (98-102).

Moreover, Pinker argues, the world as a whole is becoming more equal, because the poorest countries are experiencing growth rates higher than for the richest countries, and thus global inequality is declining.  One of the primary reasons for this is global trade that has benefited the poorer countries around the world.

And yet, Pinker admits that even if everyone around the world has on average benefited from global free trade, the benefits for some have been less than for others.  This might explain why "the lower middle classes of the rich world" are the supporters of Trump and other populist leaders: "globalization helped the lower and middle classes of poor countries, and the upper class of rich countries, much more than it helped the lower middle class of rich countries."  But then, Pinker can conclude: "it's true that the world's poor have gotten richer in part at the expense of the American lower middle class, and if I were an American politician I would not publicly say that the tradeoff was worth it.  But as citizens of the world considering humanity as a whole, we have to say that the tradeoff is worth it" (113).

Jennifer Szalai (in her review in the New York Times) probably speaks for many readers of Pinker's book when she points to this passage as illustrating his callous utilitarianism: "he has little patience for individual tragedy; it's the aggregate that excites him," but "life isn't lived in the aggregate."  Is it the "individual tragedy" of the "American lower middle class" that has motivated the Trump supporters?

Oddly, Pinker seems to contradict himself when he says in one part of his book that what really motivates the Trump supporters is not "economic insecurity" but "cultural backlash": less educated older white rural voters cannot accept the liberal Enlightenment humanism of the urban ethnically pluralist society favored by younger educated voters (342-43).

Pinker presents a chart showing "Populist support across generations, in 2016," in the United States and Europe, that shows that the percentage voting for populist candidates (including Trump) falls off with the year of birth: younger voters are not attracted to populist candidates.  Moreover, other charts show how younger generations favor the "emancipative values" or "liberal values" of the Liberal Enlightenment.  If this is so, Pinker suggests, then the electoral support for populist candidates must decline over time as the older generation passes away (342).

This assumes that the liberal younger voters will turn out to vote.  And Pinker recognizes that Trump's electoral victory in the Electoral College depended on a low turnout among those who might have voted against him.

If Trump does initiate a global trade war, and if the consequences are as harmful as predicted by classical liberals, we will see whether the Trump supporters are willing to accept economic decline as a price for the illiberal culture of authoritarian populism.

In my next post, I will set up a debate between Pinker's Enlightenment Now and Patrick Deneen's Why Liberalism Failed.


John said...

I'll be interested to read your comments on Deneen's book Larry. I just finished it myself. Pinker was in Houston last night and my Darwin-Lincoln class went and heard him speak. I'll omit my comments about both books, although I can say that I really liked one and found the other, well, flat wrong. Can you guess which?

Roger Sweeny said...

No doubt I am a cynical old man but I couldn't help thinking, "If Pinker had simply made his arguments and presented his data, most opinion leaders would dismiss the book as the work of a right winger. I mean, he gave a talk at THE CATO INSTITUTE! But enclosing it in anti-Trump rhetoric sends a signal, 'See, we're really on the same team. The enemy of your enemy is your friend. That's me.'"