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The Limits of Do-Goodery
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The Limits of Do-Goodery

Maybe it’s better if we let institutions and individuals stay in their lanes.

Dear Reader (excluding any of you who’ve been convicted of contempt of Congress recently),

Author’s note: Before you run away like Josh Hawley encountering the consequences of his jackassery, I guess I should warn you that this is a very long G-File. Think of it as overcompensation for missing Wednesday’s G-File.

Julian Simon, the great cheerleader of human ingenuity, was once on a tour of an oil facility in Alaska. Every time the flack stopped to boast about this or that, it would be to tell Simon about the “environmental benefits” of some doohickey or procedure. Eventually, Simon got so fed up with the relentless propagandizing he allegedly said, “What do you produce here, oil or environmental benefits?”

I’ve told that story many times, always with Simon as the hero. But it’s worth coming to the defense of that poor P.R. flack (that’s public relations, not “Puerto Rican”—just in case you misunderstood me). Oil companies face enormous political and cultural headwinds. When was the last time you saw a movie or TV show where the oil industry was cast in a favorable light? Some exist. There’s Armageddon, where those madcap roughnecks save the planet, and a couple others. But you’ve really gotta go deep in the catalog to find them. Giant was released in 1956. But for every Giant and Beverly Hillbillies, there’s gotta be 10 There Will Be Bloods and Oklahoma Crudes going the other way.

Since the 19th century, the oil industry has been an off-the-shelf villain for every weak tea Marxist screenwriter and left-wing journalist. Ida Tarbell became a star taking on Standard Oil.  Indeed, a lot of people think that people hate the oil industry because of environmentalism and climate change, but the modern campaign against the oil industry—launched by the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill—was well underway when scientists were still warning about global cooling. (And if you think the cultural “war on coal” is a recent phenomenon, you need to listen to some more country music.)

My only point is that the oil industry has had to deal with a very hostile political environment that’s more difficult to conquer than the North Slope of Alaska.

The cost of business.

The current craze for corporate ESG standards—“Environmental, Social, and Governance”—is just a new coat of paint on a very old story. Most businesses, and all big businesses, have to deal with a political and cultural environment that imposes considerations and priorities that can’t be reduced to a simple business plan. And I don’t just mean environmental concerns or the latest social justice fads. There’s a great scene in Back to School where the snooty economics professor is explaining how to start a business, and self-made millionaire Rodney Dangerfield is having none of it. When the professor finishes his explanations of the start-up costs, Dangerfield says, “Oh, you left out a bunch of stuff.”

“Oh, really?” the professor replies, “Like what, for instance?”

“First of all,” Dangerfield says, “you have to grease the local politicians for the sudden zoning problems that always come up. Then there’s the kickbacks to the carpenters. And if you plan on using any cement in this building, I’m sure the Teamsters would like to have a little chat with you, and that’ll cost you. Don’t forget a little something for the building inspectors. Then there’s the long-term costs, such as waste disposal. I don’t know if you’re familiar with who runs that business but I assure you it’s not the boy scouts.”

Before you say that this kind of thing is different from the social justice warrior politics of today, you should read Kenneth Timmerman’s biography of Jesse Jackson, aptly titled Shakedown. Or you should ask yourself how it came to be that the leadership of Black Lives Matter thought nothing of treating itself to a $6 million “artist’s retreat” in Southern California to further the “abolitionist” cause. David Hogg, the unctuous Joan of Arc of gun control, threatened Publix supermarkets with “die in” protests until the company ponied up $1 million to a victim’s fund.

I’m not saying it’s all a grift. For all I know, the Stoneman Douglas Victim’s Fund is entirely above board. The Black Lives Matter movement certainly has many good arguments on its side, whatever the worldly failings of the organization that claims to speak for it. My only point is that making payments—sorry, contributions—or other policy concessions to various activist groups is a business model unto itself and, more importantly, navigating a business climate where such things have become commonplace and institutionalized isn’t the sort of thing we normally think of as part of a CEO’s job description. From the perspective of Thornton Mellon—Rodney Dangerfield’s character—dealing with that kind of stuff is a real world “price of doing business,” just like greasing greedy politicians or the “respectable businessmen” of the waste removal industry.

But here’s the thing: The key word in the above paragraph is “institutionalized.”

Over at Axios, they’ve hired Eleanor Hawkins to cover the beat of how corporations communicate in this environment. “CEOs now have to respond not only to their own fires but also societal, global and national crises—all in real time,” she writes. “Just ask leaders at Abbott, Disney and Delta Air Lines.” She links to another Axios piece headlined, “The CEO job now includes political activism.” It explains—or claims—that CEOs have no choice but to wade into all manner of political controversies, from abortion to LGBTQ rights. Some of the pressure comes from shareholders, but a lot of it comes from employees who claim to be more concerned with “values” than salaries, perks, or career advancement.

Old priests and new.

Despite an illuminating conversation with my AEI colleague Brent Orrell last week on the Remnant along these lines, I remain skeptical about a lot of this. I tend to think a lot of the workplace “values” stuff can best be seen as a strategy for career advancement by other means, particularly in the media world. Lots of folks weaponize wrongthink as a way to eliminate management so they can replace them. Maybe I have too much Nietzsche and Schumpeter on the brain. Nietzsche argued that “priests” (which included, alas, Jews) used Christian ideas to overthrow the old class of ruling “knights” by turning the old virtues—strength, will, etc.—into the new vices and the old vices—the nobility of suffering, kindness, etc.—into the new virtues. It was, according to Nietzsche, a way to make the “inferior” classes feel morally superior to the “superior” classes. You may be rich and powerful, the priests would say, but the meek shall inherit the earth. So suck it.

Schumpeter updated the argument for the capitalist age. He argued that Marx replaced the meek and suffering Christian with the meek and suffering proletarian who, according to Marx, would also inherit the earth. More importantly, Schumpeter argued that the bourgeois children of the captains of industry would get in on the game, too. The vast majority of full-time radicals of the last century or so didn’t come from the proletariat, but from the comparatively comfortable ranks of the middle class. “It wasn’t the children of auto workers who pulled up the paving stones on the Left Bank in 1968,” writes Deirdre McCloskey. “The most radical environmentalists and anti-globalists nowadays are socialist children of capitalist parents.”

A lot of institutional cancel culture follows a similar intellectual and even sociological pattern. “Out of the way Boomers and GenXers,” declare the very privileged children of the meritocracy. “The woke shall inherit, if not the earth, then certainly your job.”

The best example of this might be the efforts of the various MAGA and new nationalist warriors to displace the old guard of “fusionist” conservatives. It was—and is, in some (admittedly very crude) way—a Nietzschean gambit in reverse: You guys are too meek. You’re part of the accommodationist establishment. The future is strength and winning! The youth have thrown off your “principles” and “norms” and seek manly conquest and total victory! Get on the Trump train or be run over by it!

Fads uber alles.

I don’t want to seem unfair. Not all of this values stuff is mercenary. Lots of people believe what they’re saying, and there’s something inarguably noble about sacrificing financial benefit and career advancement for the things you believe in. At least I like to think so.

My concern boils down to the fact that virtually no one is thinking through whether this is a good idea on a societal level. The Axios stuff works from the premise that corporate leaders have no choice but to adapt to this social change. They may be right, in the same way that the oil company flack felt he had no choice but to obsess about environmental benefits instead of maximizing profitable and safe oil extraction.

This, too, is an old story. I have no idea whether Constantine’s conversion to Christianity was sincere, but it’s a safe bet that lots of Romans followed his lead for more self-serving reasons. Lots of Russian socialists joined the Bolsheviks despite not being persuaded by Lenin’s superior theoretical takes on Marxism. No doubt many people got with the civil rights program in the 1960s not because they had cleansed their hearts of bigotry, but because bigotry had become socially unacceptable. I’m not saying all of these examples are the same, just that sweeping changes in attitudes don’t always come with wholesale changes in individual thinking. Lots of folks go along to get along.

But unlike Christianity and the civil rights movement—which seem (certainly in hindsight) to be unalloyed social improvements—or Bolshevism—which wasn’t—the current fads seem like exactly that: fads. They lack a serious philosophical framework, and many of the policy agendas that flow from them aren’t grounded in much beyond wishful thinking and feelings. It’s fine to want to transition away from fossil fuels, but if you won’t include nuclear energy in your strategy, you’re wish-casting. Sri Lanka embraced the faddish policies of organic farming and got starvation and political turmoil as a result.

It’s fine to say corporations “need” to market themselves as progressive havens in a heartless right-wing world. But the first question is, “Do they really?” Pro-life people buy paper towels and dog food, too. It’s also fine to argue that every business needs a climate strategy, but for the foreseeable, future cars and trucks don’t run on “environmental benefits.”

Of course, lots of people are thinking through this first question. And that’s the market for the Axios communicator’s beat. At every big company there’s someone with the “How do we go along to get along” portfolio.

It’s the second question that (almost) no one is thinking about: Is it possible for a democratic market economy to function if every business and institution is spending a lot of its time and energy making sure it’s on the “right” side of every political and cultural controversy? A church that tries to be all things to all people ceases to be a church. A family that treats every stranger like they’re part of the family ceases to be a real family. The ACLU was supposed to be a jealous guardian of the First Amendment. It’s now on the verge of becoming an interest group for Stuff We Believe in at the Moment. It may work for fundraising and feeling good about workplace values, but it’s come at the cost of their moral and intellectual authority on their core issue. You know why so many people are pissed off at schools at every level? Because they seem more into pushing one fad or another than doing their jobs. No doubt that’s not true in every instance. But it’s more than true enough to validate the appearance problem.

I’m no purist on this. I think it’s right that major institutions go out of their way not to seem—or be—bigoted. I have no problem with catering to the demands of a public that wants clean air and water or to curb the worst drivers of climate change. But such expectations are different from the new fads because they have deep philosophical and historical foundations. We also know they work at scale. The liberal concept—derived from Judaism and Christianity and tested by centuries of trial and error—of treating people with dignity works as a framework for how to run a society. Our new way of thinking, which grades people and institutions on an ad hoc political or cultural litmus test driven by the latest social media outrage, has no (desirable) historical analogue and cannot work at scale.

Barring some violation of the law or some truly grotesque violation of basic decency, it seems obvious to me that a healthy society depends on letting institutions and individuals stay in their lanes. Indeed, it seems obvious to me that a healthy society depends on expecting or even requiring institutions and individuals to stay in their lanes. Epidemiologists should have shut their yaps when activists and the media demanded dispensation to convene superspreader events for social justice. Or they should have stopped telling people to stop congregating in large numbers. But having a point-of-view test for when it’s okay to violate public health dogma was a disaster for their credibility. Doctors who think there’s nothing wrong with gender reassignment treatments for minors are free to make their arguments. But doctors who indulge or support such things against their own best medical judgment are literally traitors to their professional oaths.

Institutions are things like organizations, businesses, churches, schools, etc. But they are also rules and norms.

The new fad for fads says these rules should be bent based on whatever is fashionable in the moment. The problem is that rules work only when they are, to a significant degree, “impersonal.” That means rules should apply to everyone, regardless of their special pleading or status. Doctors, for instance, are not supposed to consult a political or racial litmus test for who to treat first. 

As a purely cultural matter, there’s a lot of leeway for this kind of stuff. You don’t have to shake a stranger’s hand when offered in friendship, but there’s a strong bias that says you need a good reason. I won’t shake the hand of someone wearing a Klan outfit, for example. But if you won’t shake someone’s hand because of their race or sexual orientation, you’re in the wrong.

But when it comes to law or essential cultural norms (like the Hippocratic Oath or legal representation), impersonality is essential. I cannot begin to convey my contempt—at least not in the space I have left—for people who think they’re taking the high road morally when they argue that society should just tolerate or even celebrate shoplifting. I get the argument; it’s not very complex. Heck, it barely qualifies as an argument because it’s really just a feeling in service of a fad. Poor people are victims of the unfair system of capitalism, and we shouldn’t punish or gainsay victims. Poor people need stuff. Letting them have it is nice and feels like generosity (it’s not actually generosity if it’s not your stuff).

This is a good illustration of my larger point. You know who benefits from a hard rule against shoplifting? Poor people. If you decriminalize shoplifting in poor areas, you are, in effect, banning commerce. Pharmacies and supermarkets close when they are no longer profitable. The stores that remain sell at much higher prices or move far away. Poor people have less access to convenient transportation, so they are forced to pay more or travel greater distances.

The motives behind the fad of decriminalizing shoplifting might be entirely decent, but the idea is irredeemably stupid—and not simply because theft is wrong (which it is). The whole idea is unsustainable and it becomes ever more so the more you scale it up. Simply put, our system could not survive if this fad became a norm. Supermarkets have a lane, and part of staying in that lane is keeping people from stealing their wares. To keep supermarkets from employing violence, we outsource much of the responsibility of policing shoplifting to, well, police. Harassing the CEOs of supermarket chains to prove they’re not “greedy” is asking them to sacrifice their core responsibilities—their role in the institution—for a faddish conception of the “greater good.” But that greater good is neither greater nor good. Telling the police to stop helping supermarkets for the greater good is actually a fundamental betrayal of not just the store owners and of poor people who don’t want to steal, but of the state’s most fundamental role.

Again, I’m no purist. We don’t have to send every shoplifter to jail or cut off their hands. Supermarkets should be praised for donating to soup kitchens and homeless shelters. But such decisions have to be at the margins, not at the core of what they do. A supermarket whose primary, non-negotiable purpose is giving free stuff to poor people stops being a supermarket and cannot sustainably exist as one. An oil company whose sole (and soul) purpose is providing “environmental benefits” sounds great, but it’s a nonsense concept. And a free society where every institution must prioritize whatever the crowd wants at a given moment cannot last as a free society.

Various & Sundry

Canine update: I went on a brief vacation this week, staying with friends in upstate New York. It was great for all sorts of reasons. One relevant reason for these purposes is that the girls got a vacation, too. They stayed with Kirsten, which made our time away all the more enjoyable because we knew they were happy. Only crazy dog people can appreciate how liberating it is to know that your dogs are enjoying your time away (even if they miss you). Another reason it was a great time was that we got to hang out with Gus and Otis. They are very special beasts. The other good news is that we are leaving town again in a little over a week (we’re renting a place in Maine) and the girls are coming with us—including Gracie. That means the August canine (and feline) updates will have an extra dose of adventure to them!


And now, the weird stuff

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.