Review: Sohrab Ahmari's New Attack on Laissez-Faire Liberalism
Sohrab Ahmari’s new book The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in An Age of Chaos is so disappointing I don’t know where to begin. This may seem to be a harsh invective, but in reality, it is a confession. My previous attempts to review this book have resulted in little more than hours and hours of frustration and discarded drafts. Such frustration stems in part from the sympathy I have for Ahmari’s general goal and a desire to do his work justice despite my previous criticism of his views. At its most basic level, Ahmari’s book seeks to ask twelve serious life questions and answer them by drawing upon the examples of twelve figures from history to demonstrate the “unbroken thread” that connects us to the past. As a staunch defender of tradition myself, this basic goal appeals to me and I had hoped that despite our differences we would be able to develop some common ground.
Alas, it was not to be. While Ahmari’s book does have some merit, in the end, I am afraid that it falls far short of its potential and is hampered by his inability to resist shoehorning in conclusions that are radical leaps from the case he has made by drawing upon history.
To begin with, Ahmari does the reader a service by prompting him to think about many things on a deeper level than one is likely to do given the cultural zeitgeist of the moment. It is no surprise to see C.S. Lewis, St. Augustine, or Thomas Aquinas show up, and it is unexpected to see radical feminist Andrea Dworkin appear for the chapter that asks, “Is Sex a Private Matter?” Every question Ahmari asks is worthy of thought and most of the thinkers he draws upon are worthy of further study.
Ahmari does an excellent job of relaying the stories of his subjects and prompting the reader to consider the nature of God, or how we should treat our family, or even the good aspects of death. However, where he falls far short is in his application of these stories to the world today. At many times Ahmari’s analysis amounts to little more than a sophisticated version of college freshmen sitting around smoking pot and complaining that “something must be done!” This failure is, unfortunately, par for the course when it comes to Ahmari’s tendency to do little more than complain (a tendency for which he was widely mocked after his dismal performance in a debate against David French).
At the end of most chapters, Ahmari simply can’t resist tossing in potshots at “liberalism” and sweeping claims that he has done little to support though they are deserving of a great deal of analysis in their own right. To his credit, he generally avoids his most obscene polemics, for which he is well known, but his toned-down rhetoric does not do much to hide the fact he clearly has an agenda and it is not well supported.
Take for instance when he asks, “Why Would God Want You to Take a Day Off?” In this case, he draws upon the Holocaust survivor Rabbi Abraham Joshua Herschel to illustrate the importance of a day of true rest, especially amid the hustle and bustle of contemporary life. And to give credit where it is due, Ahmari does a good job of relaying Herschel’s story.
However, having laid out the case for a day of rest over more than ten pages, Ahmari uses less than a page to cram in a whole host of issues that receive no analysis at all. Why has our culture gotten so bad at taking a day of rest? Free markets! The lack of blue laws prohibiting commerce on Sundays is why we have “astronomical divorce rates, abysmally low rates of family formation, alienation, and drug abuse, harried lives, and misse[d] human connections,” he declares, with nary a peep more exploration of what is certainly a complex subject full of interconnected cause and effect relations.
But any readers who have followed Ahmari since his (in)famous essay "Against David French-ism" in First Things will not be surprised at his lack of nuance. When I wrote an essay at the American Conservative arguing that blue laws will not fill the pews in American churches again, Ahmari’s rebuttal amounted to basically accusing me of treating American workers like peasants.
How would blue laws be implemented in a pluralistic country where the three largest religions have three different holy days in the week? Ahmari doesn’t deign to tell us, just complains about the evils of “maximal market liberty.”
A more technical critique can be leveled against question six, which asks, “Does God Need Politics?” Beyond being framed in what I would consider an incorrect way, Ahmari’s analysis of the life of St. Augustine and his doctrine of the two cities (the heavenly and the earthly, or the city of God and the city of man) leaves much to be desired. One major error is that Ahmari confuses the nature of the two cities, and seems to think that actual physical cities or political entities, such as Rome, can be considered an “earthly city.” This is an incorrect affiliation. As political theorist James L. Wiser states in his book Political Philosophy: A History of the Search for Order, “[I]t is clear that no such identification is intended” and furthermore that “inasmuch as one’s true citizenship is determined solely by the disposition of one’s soul, any historical or institutional affiliation is of a decidedly secondary importance.” Wiser goes on to argue that “the effect of the Augustinian doctrine was to loosen the individual’s ties to his or her political community.”
One might make the case that Augustine was responsible for some of the seeds of Western individualism that Ahmari so loathes. However, the irony does not stop there. Ahmari’s stance on the banning of pornography and other vices is no secret, and he uses an Augustianian stance on the nature of true justice to undergird this view. Yet, as Ryan McMaken has pointed out, both St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas argued that prostitution should not be banned by the civil government. Is this discrepancy addressed? Don’t count on it.
The confusing aspects of this chapter continue. I couldn’t help but hear a rising chorus of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” in the background when Ahmari stated that “God doesn’t need anything from us. But the God of the Bible seeks to transfigure everything about us, including our cities.” No doubt the Protestant “evangelical pietists” (historically the sworn enemies of Catholics like Ahmari), who would later become the progressive Christians, would agree with this statement. Their desire to bring about God’s kingdom on earth is what has led to the anti-Christian progressive nightmare we have today.
It is in this chapter that Ahmari also makes some of his most confused attacks on liberalism. We are told that liberalism “claimed to totally sever politics from the shared quest for ‘the highest goods of human life’” and that “for conservatives or ‘classical’ liberals, the common good is often seen as a synonym for statist oppression.” Ahmari also seems to think he has made a slam dunk by claiming that liberal societies claim to be free of coercion but actually aren’t.
Mises would not find these arguments to be persuasive, to say the least. He would certainly dispute the idea that liberal societies claim to be free of coercion. After all, in Liberalism, he argues that “without the application of compulsion and coercion against the enemies of society, there could not be any life in society.”
Similarly, while Mises may use different terminology, one may make the case that the entirety of his political writings is consumed with advancing the common good. For Mises this common good is to be found in creating the social conditions that allow for the peaceful coexistence of people who hold different views of the highest good. Drawing upon the past, one can easily see the destruction and death that has been wrought by those who have sought to “enforce our order and our orthodoxy,” to use Ahmari’s own words. It is not clear how precipitating round two of the Thirty Years' War would be conducive to the common good.
Ahmari’s vulgar liberal bashing is all the more unfortunate in that he ignores thinkers and ideas that are applicable to his arguments. I cannot help but think of the work of David Walsh at the Catholic University of America, a Catholic liberal who is no stranger to the common good. When Ahmari laments “inequality’s tendency to degrade the souls of the ‘haves,’” one immediately thinks of Envy: A Theory of Social Behaviour, by the midcentury classical liberal Helmut Schoeck. When he complains that cryptocurrencies like bitcoin are not under the control of nation-states and therefore hinder the implementation of “economic equity,” the work of Mises Institute Senior Fellow Guido Hülsmann and his book The Ethics of Money Production immediately leap to mind.
A book that truly engaged with such liberal thinkers from Ahmari’s perspective would indeed be a book well worth reading. The lack of such engagement is to the detriment both of the reader and Ahmari’s credibility as a thinker to be taken seriously. His treatment of someone like Andrea Dworkin demonstrates that he is capable of thoughtful engagement; we can only hope he exhibits more of it in his future work. For now, though, readers may find Ahmari’s questions to be thought provoking, but will most likely be disappointed by the quality of his answers.