Suicide of the West | Jonah Goldberg

Summary of: Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Nationalism, and Socialism Is Destroying American Democracy
By: Jonah Goldberg


In ‘Suicide of the West’, Jonah Goldberg explores the miraculous transformation of human society that began around 1700 with the birth of novel ideas surrounding how to structure society and government. This book summary delves deep into the roots of this transformation, focusing on the common law system of England, which provided the foundation for the rule of law and limiting the power of monarchs. It also highlights the role of civil society and its participation in governance. This introspective journey will help shed light on the crucial factors that helped shape the modern world, its current challenges, and the importance of understanding and preserving the essence of the ongoing miracle.

The Miracle of Human History

For the majority of human existence, life was “nasty, brutish and short.” However, something miraculous happened in the late 17th century that changed everything. Before the 18th century, people lived on around $1 a day, but afterward, their income skyrocketed. Global GDP per capita started rising ever higher, with no end in sight. Additionally, people also started thinking differently about how to structure society and government. William of Orange’s Glorious Revolution of 1688, for example, introduced revolutionary reforms in England like setting clear limits on the monarchy and giving parliament a greater say in running the country. It was one of the first times in history that the right of parliamentary representatives to govern in the name of the people was established. To preserve the gains of this miracle, we need to understand it.

The Ingredients of the Miracle

The miracle that transformed England into a rich and prosperous nation had its roots in a unique combination of factors including common law, geography, and civil society. Unlike the continental European legal systems, common law limits the power of monarchs and encourages judges to consider legal precedents in making decisions. The country’s island geography also meant that its rulers didn’t have to build massive armies like other militaristic European counterparts. As a result, English society was more liberal and less concerned about wars. The final ingredient that nurtured the miracle was the society’s spirit of individuality, encouraging individualism and free association, which helped establish a solid civil society.

The Miracle of Human Morality

The book explores the innate dichotomy of the human psyche, examining both the capacity for moral behavior and the instinct of tribalism. While studies suggest that morality is innate, so is distrust of strangers, proving that inclusion and exclusion are deeply embedded in human nature. However, the miracle is the triumph over human nature and impulses of cruelty that have been responsible for war and genocide. The author brings to light how modern institutions have played a significant role in restraining violence, making it less common than ever before. The book concludes with a thought-provoking claim that if violence had remained as common in the twentieth century as it was in prehistoric times, the total death toll would have been two billion, making it a miracle that civilization has been able to put a lid on human cruelty.

The Role of the State

The disagreement between John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau on the role of the state deepened the rift between the two greatest Enlightenment philosophers. Whereas Locke believed that the state exists to protect property, Rousseau argued that its purpose is to defend the collective interests of society. Despite the Founding Fathers embracing Locke’s idea of the right to property, Rousseau insisted that humans are inherently good but get corrupted by society. As such, individuals should submit their interests to those of society as a whole. This debate about individual rights versus the collective interest remains relevant today and will determine the future of modern society.

The Merit of Aristocracy

Across the West, anti-establishment thoughts are widespread, and elites are bearing the brunt. However, there’s nothing inherently wrong with elitism; in fact, it can be meritocratic. Aristocracy, in its real sense, chooses members based on their abilities, rather than inherited titles. Even aristocracies can be beneficial to society, just like Cornelius Vanderbilt, who built the US’s first railroads. However, elites need to be checked to prevent them from becoming too powerful, as occurred in the Republic of Venice. A system of checks and balances like the US with its three equal branches of government can ensure proper regulations and safeguards. Nonetheless, American ruling classes have become less meritocratic with time.

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