Why did a once booming world economy give way to stagflation? Economist W. Rostow finds the roots of the problem in the phenomenon he terms the Barbaric Counter-Revolution-the effort to wring inflation out of the economic system by the rigorous application of a restricted rate of increase in the money supply.
Clarence Thomas’s Counterrevolution — Crooked Timber
This policy was launched by the Carter administration in October , reinforced by President Reagan in mid , and abandoned in August In the end, it provided the United States with no mechanism for rapid recovery that did not bring with it a return to high interest rates, resumed inflation, and, soon, another recession. The shared feature is that the ideal, according to its true believers, is immune from rational or moral criticism, because it determines what is reasonable and moral. What is the remedy? To punish the traitors.
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We must exterminate those miserable villains who are eternally conspiring against the rights of man. Thompson in his biography of Robespierre.
To any right-minded or merciful man such procedure must seem a travesty of justice. Empowered by this model republican justice, the Revolutionary Tribunal sent to death 1, people in nine weeks, as many as during the preceding 14 months. R obespierre was born in in the town of Arras. His father was a feckless lawyer; his mother, the daughter of a brewer, died in childbirth when Robespierre was six.
A few months after her death, the father deserted his four young children. Robespierre and his brother went to live with their maternal grandparents. At 11, not an unusual age in those days, Robespierre won a scholarship to the University of Paris. After ten years there, he emerged with a law degree, returned to Arras, and started to practice law. In early , he won election to the Convention as a representative of the Third Estate in Arras.
Beginning as a fairly radical democrat, he became, as the Revolution unfolded, more and more radical. Robespierre never married. He was not known to have had any love affairs. Nor did he have any interest in sex, money, food, the arts, nature, or indeed anything but politics. He was about five feet three inches tall, with a slight build, a small head on broad shoulders, and light chestnut hair. Robespierre made no secret of his convictions. He expressed them in several crucial speeches, of which copies, written in his own hand, remain.
In his August speech, Robespierre said that France was living through one of the great events in human history. But a serious obstacle barred the way. France is the theater of this terrible combat. The object of every political association is to safeguard the natural and imprescriptible rights of men. Freedom is the right of every man to exercise all his faculties at will.
Its rule is justice, its limits are the rights of others, its source is nature, its guarantee is the law. Any law which violates the imprescriptible rights of man is essentially unjust and tyrannical.
How did Robespierre actually interpret these principles? T he inconsistency between the Declaration, providing the basis of the constitutional guarantee of equal rights for all citizens, and the actual policies that Robespierre dictated and that his followers enforced, was so blatant as to require an explanation. This Robespierre provided in a speech in December The first befits a time of war between liberty and its enemies; the second suits a time when freedom is victorious, and at peace with the world.
But internal enemies threatened the successful completion of this struggle.
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There was, therefore, no inconsistency between the Declaration and the Terror. The Terror was merely the means to it, forced on the revolutionary regime by enemies who prevented the realization of the constitutional regime. This piece of sophistry was then new, but to those who look back on the twentieth century it is depressingly familiar from the use that many murderous regimes have made of it. They all claimed that their aim was human well-being, but that incorrigibly wicked enemies, who have disguised their true nature and conspired against the noblest of aims, threatened its achievement.
The supposed threat was so serious, and the aim so important, as to warrant extreme, albeit temporary, measures—to identify enemies, unmask their conspiracies, and exterminate them. To a handful of clear-sighted and courageous heroes of the revolution—like the KGB, the SS, and the Red Guard—falls the duty of performing these necessary tasks. They must harden their hearts and do what needs to be done in the interest of the greater good.
A remarkable feature of the ideological frame of mind is that those in its grip actually believe these justifications for disemboweling, lynching, mutilating, burying alive, drowning, and hacking to pieces their unfortunate victims. In fact, the atrocities only strengthen the utter certainty with which ideologues hold their convictions and impose their aim.
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A n ideology is a worldview that makes sense of prevailing political conditions and suggests ways of improving them. This last component—commitment to a political program and its implementation—is what distinguishes ideologies from religious, personal, aesthetic, or philosophical systems of belief.
The French Revolution
Ideologies aim to transform society. Other systems of belief do not involve such a commitment; if they do, they become ideological. In the course of history, many different and incompatible ideologies have held sway, all of them essentially speculative interpretations that go beyond undeniable facts and simple truths. Resting on fallible hypotheses about matters that transcend the existing state of knowledge, they are especially prone to wishful, self-deceiving, anxious, or self-serving thinking—to unchecked flights of fantasy and imagination.
Reasonable people therefore regard ideologies, including their own, with robust skepticism and demand of them conformity to elementary standards of reason: logical consistency, the explanation of indisputable and relevant facts, responsiveness to new evidence and serious criticism, and recognition that the success or failure of policies derived from them counts as confirming or disconfirming evidence.
Put another way, uncorrupted human beings intuitively recognize and act in the general interest. If any individual fails to see that his true interests are the same as the general interest, he must be forced to act as if he did see it, for his own good.
But who are those uncorrupted human beings who know what is in the general interest? There does exist a tender, but imperious and irresistible passion. There does exist a generous ambition to found on earth the first republic in the world. You can feel it, at this moment, burning in your hearts; I can feel it in my own. But he did not leave it at that. He regarded it as his duty to coerce the corrupted population to live according to what he in his purity regarded as virtue.
You have driven out the kings, but have you driven out those vices that their fatal domination bred within you? When he encountered opposition, he knew with absolute certainty that his opponents were either vicious and had to be exterminated for the common good, or were ignorant and had to be coerced for their own good to act as if they were as pure and virtuous as he. He did not ask whether he should nurture that passion, whether it was an appropriate reaction to the facts, whether it was too strong, or whether he should be guided by it.
The aim of his politics was to make the world fit his passion, not vice versa. The result was that he blinded himself to the actual requirements of reason and morality and decreed the murder of thousands simply because he suspected that they might disagree with his passionately held views. All the while, he self-righteously proclaimed that his vicious actions were virtuous and that he was the champion of reason and morality. I t may be said in a misguided attempt to defend Robespierre that he sincerely believed his ideology and acted on it in good faith; people can do no more than that.
Of course, if this excuse were valid, it would, absurdly, excuse SS concentration-camp guards, if they were sincere Nazis; KGB torturers, provided they were committed Communists; or Islamic terrorists, if they are truly fanatical. But the reprehensible beliefs of the ideologues strengthen rather than weaken responsibility for such actions. One wants to say that people ought not hold beliefs from which monstrous actions follow. And this is just what is right to say in response to any effort to excuse Robespierre.
If his ideology led him to mass murder, he should not have held it. Many people, of course, do not choose the ideology they hold but acquire it through indoctrination. It may be too much to demand of them to resist indoctrination, if it is persistent and sophisticated, and if they know of no reasonable alternatives. Not being able to resist ideological indoctrination, however, is one thing; committing atrocities in its name is quite another.
People do have a choice as to whether they torture or murder. Decent people will question their ideology if they see that it leads to inflicting horrors. And if they do not question it and commit atrocities, then they are justly held responsible not for what they believe but for what they have done. Robespierre, however, was not indoctrinated. He constructed his ideology himself, from his readings, education, and early political experience. As a lawyer trained to sift through evidence and evaluate the interpretations of facts, he had the ability to think critically about his ideology; yet he did not.
He is, therefore, responsible for the mass murder he caused. And the same is true of countless Communists, Nazis, Maoists, and terrorists who chose their ideology in preference to readily available alternatives of which they could not be ignorant. But why did all those follow Robespierre who did not share either his ideology or his monstrous passion?
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