The Road To Weimar

In an 1841 letter to the great Scottish essayist, satirist, and social critic Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote “The Anglo-Saxon race [i.e., in the overall context of Emerson’s letter, the British] is proud and strong and selfish. England maintains trade, not liberty.” (italics added) The last five words could be taken as a summary of the state of the current discussion concerning trade and the economics of globalism. All parties to the discussion, regardless of their positions on particular issues, seem determined to “maintain[] trade, not liberty”. I recently ran across what might be considered a classical example of this attitude in an otherwise-excellent article in the Harvard Business Review by Prof. Joan C. Williams,  Distinguished Professor of Law and Founding Director of the Center of WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. I have serious issues with her analysis of the results of the 2016 presidential election in terms of economics. But I will mostly skate over that, other than to recommend reflecting on Ta-Nehisi Coates’s assertion that the results of the election were determinatively influenced, much less by economics, than by “white fright” at the prospect of a two-term black President being succeeded by a female President.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

I say I will “mostly skate over” Prof. Williams’s preparatory arguments – for so I regard them – but those preliminary theses are important to acknowledge as a preparation for dealing with (what I regard as) her most central – and, I would say, dangerous – position:  “maintain[ing] trade over liberty”.  But even with the ancillary arguments, it is difficult to know where to start.  Throughout her article, she seems entangled between a concern to (a) acknowledge the validity of the white working class (WWC) and its concerns about the lack of wage  growth while simultaneously (b) distancing herself from the concomitant prejudice and bigotry that so often accompany those valid economic issues. Even so, at times, she loses the battle for even-handedness.  For example:

o Straight talk is seen as requiring manly courage, not being “a total wuss and a wimp,” an electronics technician told Lamont [one of the secondary sources Williams cites].

Not a word critiquing the prevalent WWC assumption that “straight talk” is a “manly” virtue – which would imply that a woman, not being a man, would be consigned to being “a total wuss and a wimp,” and therefore lacking a moral backbone. Also not a word even suggesting that “straight talk,” being by definition devoid of nuance, often oversimplifies issues, recalling H. L. Mencken’s trenchant observation that “for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong”. Perhaps she would do the WWC a great service if she told them "Sorry, ladies and gentlemen, but matters are  often not as simple as 'straight talk' usually makes them seem".

o I wish manliness worked differently. But most men, like most women, seek to fulfill the ideals they’ve grown up with. For many blue-collar men, all they’re asking for is basic human dignity (male varietal).

No doubt, in the 1850s, apologists for slavery could as well say “I wish race worked differently. But most plantation owners seek to fulfill the ideals they’ve grown up with.” Williams is not an advocate for slavery, of course. But she seems to passively acquiesce to the WWC culture's understanding of "manliness". So her argument swerves away from a critique of WWC attitudes toward gender roles, and could serve as well as a vehicle to swerve away from issues of race and ethnicity. Also, the “basic human dignity” at issue is, as she herself says, the “male varietal” which, within the context of that quote, is defined purely in terms of money. This is, as I will argue below, a persistent problem with Williams’s analysis of the issue:  an exclusively one-dimensional conception of economics in isolation from all other values and considerations. Again, it’s a case in point of Emerson:  “trade” over “liberty.” When forced to choose between them, the former is given preference over the latter.

o The Democrats’ solution? Last week the New York Times published an article advising men with high-school educations to take pink-collar jobs. Talk about insensitivity.

Again, the issue, in Williams’s view, is the failure of Democrats and progressives to uncritically underwrite the values of the Trump-prone WWC, in particular, that culture's understanding of masculinity. Does she understand that RNs, regardless of gender, earn more than a typical automotive mechanic? (So which of the two occupations is truly "masculine"? Which is pink-collar and which is blue-?) Also, would she be willing to critique Colin Kaepernick and his teammates for kneeling during the National Anthem, thus demonstrating “insensitivity” to Southern conservatives' sensibilities? If not, why?

But Williams’s perspective is most problematical – I would even argue that “potentially dangerous” is not inappropriate – with her first major point and piece of advice to Democrats and progressives.

If You Want to Connect with White Working-Class Voters, Place Economics at the Center


This is an interesting perspective, given that much of the law regulating the conduct of  corporations in the marketplace and toward their employees is precisely geared to remove “economics [from] the center”  in deference to other values and priorities. If all -- repeat:  all -- we are interested in is "plac[ing] economics at the center" in the pristinely unmodulated way Prof. Williams uses that locution, then we should -- as Trump is very much in the process of doing -- repeal all  environmental, safe-workplace, child-labor, etc. -- regulations and allow the free market, to say nothing of the laws of physics and thermodynamics, to have the decisive vote as to the consequences.  Alternative energy sources? Aw hell, coal will do just fine:  good enough at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution for our great- and great-great-grandparents, good enough for us. If illegal immigrants are indeed found usurping American jobs, then adopt the "manly" approach:  round them up, perhaps give them a sack lunch, and ship them whence they came, with no effeminate constitutional shilly-shallying about "due process" or "equal protection" or "feet-dry citizenship" for children born in the US. Remember:  per Emerson, "maintain[] trade, not liberty".

Kapp Putsch, Berlin
March of Rotkaempferbund (Red Struggle Alliance), Berlin

And speaking of the Constitution, this brings us to the most insidious aspect of Prof. Williams's analysis:  her utter neglect of so much as a hat-tip to considerations of the constitutional limits on governmental, in particular, presidential power. Unfortunately, she is not alone in this omission.  Observing the current debates about immigration, economics, income disparity, etc., etc., etc., a 7-tentacled extraterrestrial visitor just arrived from one of the ringed moons of Epsilon Eridani 7 would be justified in concluding that, when an American joins the Armed Forces, he or she takes a solemn oath to "support and defend the Balance of Payments and Income Growth Potential of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same" not to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States". (Question:  why do recruits -- and a President being inaugurated -- take an oath to preserve the Constitution of the United States and not the United States itself?  Exercise for reader. When you discover the answer, you will see why I beat this drum so loudly.)  If we forget to remember this, we do so at our peril.  And during the election of 2016, I believe we forgot to remember it.

In fairness to her, I believe Prof. Williams did not forget. She just forgot to remember. Like Esau, who sold his birthright to Jacob in the Genesis story, she succumbed to the illusion that the immediate exigencies of economics are everything, superseding all other considerations.  Esau, realizing his mistake, was unable to recover the birthright he scorned, though he sought it with tears (Heb. 12:17). Thus endeth a cautionary tale for us.

Nor are we the first to forget. In 1919, Germany, emerging from the Great War and the humiliation of Versailles, drafted a wonderfully enlightened constitution in the beautiful old city of Weimar as a blueprint for its new parliamentary democracy.  What ensued in short order were political instability, street violence among competing factions, depression, and hyper-inflation, eventuating catastrophic levels of poverty and unemployment.  Facing multiple crises, Germans decided to follow Prof. Williams's advice:  place "cultural" issues on hold so as to concentrate on practicalities and "place economics at the center". After all, it seemed at the time the "practical" thing to do. It probably would have seemed "practical" to us, too, had we been there. But forgetting cultural issues, issues of principle, and the latitudinarian, classical-liberal values of the European Enlightenment led to the shredding of the Weimar constitution, the rise of fascism, the suppression of what we would call First Amendment liberties (what we would term censorship of the press), the Ermaechtigungsgesetz ("Enabling Act") of 1933, the dissolution of the Reichstag, and ... but no point in continuing the list ... I think you see what I mean.

"Jim, you're over-reacting" ... On the contrary, I am driven by the logic of Prof. Williams' own argument. For if economics really is "at the center" -- Prof. Williams' terminology, not mine -- then the implications of such a policy include all the above. By definition, there can only be one center to anything, be it a circle or a suite of policies. Emerson was right:  if economics ("trade") is "at the center", then the Constitution and the values inherent in the American tradition of "ordered liberty" are and must be strictly secondary. Problem is, judging by the current state of the debate on the economy and related issues -- immigration, the environment, you name it -- those are precisely the priorities that most seem, Esau-like, to prefer.

So ... enjoy your "mess of pottage" (Genesis 25:31–34) and welcome to Weimar!

James R. Cowles

Image credits

Russian shop women ... RIA Novosti archive ... Yury Artamonov ... CC-BY-SA 3.0
Coal miners ... National Archives ... Public domain
Ralph Waldo Emerson ... Photographer unknown ... Public domain
Political march, Weimar Germany ... Bundesarchiv, Germany ... CC BY-SA 3.0
Kapp Putsch, Weimar Germany ... Bundesarchiv, Germany ... CC BY-SA 3.0
Hitler and quote ... Photographer unknown ... Public domain

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