Saturday, June 3, 2017

Hobbes in the White House is Hobbling America

I’ll get back to Thomas Hobbes and why his political philosophy is not good for us in a moment or two. But first I’ll let David Brooks introduce my thinking with his op-ed on how Donald Trump Poisons the World (h/t Sherry Moreau)

This week, two of Donald Trump’s top advisers, H. R. McMaster and Gary Cohn, wrote the following passage in The Wall Street Journal: “The president embarked on his first foreign trip with a cleareyed outlook that the world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage.”

That sentence is the epitome of the Trump project. It asserts that selfishness is the sole driver of human affairs. It grows out of a worldview that life is a competitive struggle for gain. It implies that cooperative communities are hypocritical covers for the selfish jockeying underneath.

The essay explains why the Trump people are suspicious of any cooperative global arrangement, like NATO and the various trade agreements. It helps explain why Trump pulled out of the Paris global-warming accord. This essay explains why Trump gravitates toward leaders like Vladimir Putin, the Saudi princes and various global strongmen: They share his core worldview that life is nakedly a selfish struggle for money and dominance.

It explains why people in the Trump White House are so savage to one another. Far from being a band of brothers, their world is a vicious arena where staffers compete for advantage.

We’ve seen this philosophy before, of course. Powerful, selfish people have always adopted this dirty-minded realism to justify their own selfishness. The problem is that this philosophy is based on an error about human beings and it leads to self-destructive behavior in all cases.

Brooks’ essay is really about two very different views of humankind that have their roots in the competing political theories of the 17th century. The view expressed by McMaster and Cohn follows from Thomas Hobbes’ view of the world.

Throughout his life, Hobbes believed that the only true and correct form of government was the absolute monarchy. … This belief stemmed from the central tenet of Hobbes’ natural philosophy that human beings are, at their core, selfish creatures. According to Hobbes, if man is placed in a state of nature (that is, without any form of government) humans would be in a state of constant warfare with one another. In this natural state, Hobbes stated, the life of a man was ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.’

The other view came from John Locke: “Locke’s political theory was founded on social contract theory. Unlike Thomas Hobbes, Locke believed that human nature is characterised by reason and tolerance.” [Wiki]

I recommend Brook’s essay to unpack each of his assertions (that are more Locke-alike than Hobbesian):

People are wired to cooperate.
People have a moral sense.
People have moral emotions.
People yearn for righteousness.
People are attracted by goodness and repelled by selfishness.

By treating the world simply as an arena for competitive advantage, Trump, McMaster and Cohn sever relationships, destroy reciprocity, erode trust and eviscerate the sense of sympathy, friendship and loyalty that all nations need when times get tough.

By looking at nothing but immediate material interest, Trump, McMaster and Cohn turn America into a nation that affronts everybody else’s moral emotions. They make our country seem disgusting in the eyes of the world.

But attributing Trump’s actions - and those of the GOP more generally - to a Hobbesian world view may be more generous than warranted. Paul Krugman argues for even worse motivations in Trump Gratuitously Rejects the Paris Climate Accord. Here are essential snippets.

As Donald Trump does his best to destroy the world’s hopes of reining in climate change, let’s be clear about one thing: This has nothing to do with serving America’s national interest. The U.S. economy, in particular, would do just fine under the Paris accord. This isn’t about nationalism; mainly, it’s about sheer spite.

Krugman then argues that our economy would fare well as we transition to electrified energy based on wind and solar.

Why, then, are so many people on the right determined to block climate action, and even trying to sabotage the progress we’ve been making on new energy sources?

Don’t tell me that they’re honestly worried about the inherent uncertainty of climate projections. All long-term policy choices must be made in the face of an uncertain future (duh); there’s as much scientific consensus here as you’re ever likely to see on any issue. And in this case, uncertainty arguably strengthens the case for action, because the costs of getting it wrong are asymmetric: Do too much, and we’ve wasted some money; do too little, and we’ve doomed civilization.

Don’t tell me that it’s about coal miners. Anyone who really cared about those miners would be crusading to protect their health, disability and pension benefits, and trying to provide alternative employment opportunities — not pretending that environmental irresponsibility will somehow bring back jobs lost to strip mining and mountaintop removal.

While it isn’t about coal jobs, right-wing anti-environmentalism is in part about protecting the profits of the coal industry, which in 2016 gave 97 percent of its political contributions to Republicans.

Pay any attention to modern right-wing discourse — including op-ed articles by top Trump officials — and you find deep hostility to any notion that some problems require collective action beyond shooting people and blowing things up.

Beyond this, much of today’s right seems driven above all by animus toward liberals rather than specific issues. If liberals are for it, they’re against it. If liberals hate it, it’s good. Add to this the anti-intellectualism of the G.O.P. base, for whom scientific consensus on an issue is a minus, not a plus, with extra bonus points for undermining anything associated with President Barack Obama.

And if all this sounds too petty and vindictive to be the basis for momentous policy decisions, consider the character of the man in the White House. Need I say more?

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