In 1948, Richard M. Weaver published a hugely influential book Ideas Have Consequences in which he showed the devastating effects of nominalism, rejection of absolute truth, on the West.
The book largely shaped the subsequent development of conservatism in general and American conservatism in particular. The case Weaver builds for his self-explanatory title is irrefutable. Indeed, denying the existence of ultimate, absolute truth eventually seeps through the intellectual cracks down to the level of even smaller, derivative truths that all fall prey to petty relativism.
But things are even worse than that. For in parallel people lose track of the very notion of consequences, including those resulting from simple actions, not just involved ideas.
Societies at large suffer the cerebral trauma of not recognising causality any longer, like our distant ancestors who were unaware of the connection between sexual intercourse and pregnancy. Yet elementary causality is one of the first things we learn.
A child knows that if he touches fire he’ll get burnt, if he sticks his fingers into an electric outlet he’ll get a shock, and if he tells his mother to shut up he’ll get spanked. As he grows up, he never loses the notion of basic causality. But these days most grown-ups find it hard to extrapolate to a higher level.
The most obvious example comes from personal finances. In the past, most of Dickens’s readers lived by the simple maxim of his protagonist Wilkins Micawber: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen, nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”
Today we routinely spend more, sometimes much more, than we earn. Thus, over the 20 years leading up to the 2008 crisis, the expenditure of an average American household was three times its income.
People, and Americans certainly aren’t the only ones, have clearly lost the ability to correlate their appetites with the likely consequences of fiscal promiscuity. They live according to the old ad, “Take waiting out of wanting”, but along with waiting they also take out their future.
If people can’t grasp the causal link between incontinent spending and bankruptcy, they have no chance of grasping wider issues, those that affect the whole country. That makes them incompetent voters who create incompetent governments in their own image.
And the latter simply ignore any long-term consequences of their policies – the very nature of modern democracy conditions politicians to have little interest in anything that happens beyond the next election.
Like an irresponsible man who borrows huge amounts to go on holidays or buy luxuries, only to find out years later he has no pension to retire on, our governments think on the scale of the current term in office only.
Take the current shortage of labour in Britain. Our educational system doesn’t produce enough people able to function in a modern economy, and our welfare system encourages inactivity.
The most obvious solution is to import labour by relaxing restrictions on immigration, and many European governments have followed that route. Our TINO government (Tory In Name Only) is planning to do just that, hoping to get our sclerotic economy going in time for the 2024 election.
If they do that, they may well succeed – in the short term. But by pulling the economic blanket all the way up to their chin, they leave society’s social and cultural feet freezing cold.
The idea that the superficially attractive economic measure of mass immigration is likely to prove disastrous in every other respect isn’t something they consider and reject. It simply doesn’t cross their minds.
One could cite hundreds of examples, all pointing to the conclusion that the notion of causality has fallen by the wayside. There it’s piled up on top of the discarded concept of absolute truth, a development that worried Richard Weaver so gravely and justifiably.
In fact, the two are so closely connected that, to all intents and purposes, they are one and the same. Both tragedies are themselves consequences, with civilisational collapse being the cause.
For the best part of two millennia, people imbibed from ambient air the understanding that they’ll be held to account in eternity for everything they do in this life. They’d be rewarded with eternal bliss for everything good they did and punished with the fire of hell for everything bad.
That understanding didn’t necessarily deter even many of those who accepted it as fact. And far from everyone ever believed in the underlying spiritual system. But a robust civilisation shapes even infidels and laggards – they may reject the dominant assumptions consciously, but they can’t escape their osmotic power of persuasion.
Many shoved the underlying faith to the back of their minds, while pushing earthly concerns to the front. But any overarching system affects all its derivatives. Hence even those who rejected the spiritual basis of Western civilisation couldn’t help applying its intellectual principles to even the seemingly unrelated aspects of daily life.
When Western civilisation was ousted by another, modern one, new people moved into the old house, discarded its furniture and moved in their own stuff. Yet some of the old furniture was worth keeping, for life became increasingly uncomfortable without it.
Having thrown out the concept of absolute truth, the newcomers gradually lost the notion of any immutable truth whatsoever – everything became relative, negotiable, up for grabs. And when the understanding of the eternal consequences of one’s actions ended up in the dumping ground, it took with it the derivative notion of all causality.
I mentioned uncontrolled immigration as one toxic result of that intellectual calamity, but there exist uncountable others. We bemoan the effects, but, having lost sight of the causes, can’t do anything about it.
Taking that same issue, why do we have a shortage of labour? Because too many Britons lack the marketable skills essential for functioning in a modern economy.
Any why is that? Because nine million of them are illiterate, and twice as many as near as damn.
How did that come about, in a country that just a few decades ago had one of the world’s most effective educational systems? Because that system was destroyed.
How come? Because enforcing socialist ideology became more important than having an educated population. All pupils, whose parents couldn’t afford to pay the exorbitant cost of private education, were lumped together in the name of equality – to have their heads crammed full of useless ideological waste at the expense of real knowledge.
But why did socialist ideology become so powerful? Because it’s so consonant with the post-Enlightenment world that it has more or less vanquished all its competitors.
What makes it so consonant with modernity?.. And so on, with the chain of causal begets becoming longer and longer.
A wise man will form his view of life by grasping the chain and understanding how its links clasp together. A wise government will be staffed with statesmen capable of not only following the chain but also of acting sagely according to that understanding. A wise civilisation will never forget the truth of consequences.
That kind of wisdom is lost, on every level. That people en masse no longer believe in God is self-evident. That as a result they no longer believe in consequences is less obvious. But no less true.