Michael Shellenberger doesn’t identify as a conservative. This isn’t a conversion confession. Instead, his Substack cri de coeur calls out his former compatriots for abandoning actual and optimistic progressivism and embracing the New Left’s despair and victimology in its place. Whether it’s homelessness, racism, or energy, their solutions all amount to nothing more than nihilism and stasis, Shellenberger argues, with a heapin’ helpin’ of authoritarianism.
If it’s not conversion, it’s at least a Saul-in-the-desert experience of scales falling from the eyes:
But now, on all the major issues of the day, the message from progressives is “No, you can’t.” No: poor nations like Bangladesh can’t adapt to climate change by becoming rich, insist progressives; rather, rich nations must become poor. No: we can’t prevent the staggering rise of drug deaths in the U.S., from 17,000 in 2000 to 93,000 in 2020, by helping people free themselves from addiction; rather, we must instead provide Safe Injection Sites and Safe Sleeping Sites, in downtown neighborhoods, where homeless addicts can use fentanyl, heroin, and meth safely.
Progressives insist they are offering hope. Many scientists and activists yesterday said that, while we have gone past the point of no return, when it comes to climate change, and that “No one is safe,” we can make the situation less bad by using solar panels, windmills, and electric cars, albeit at a very high cost to the economy. And in California, progressive leaders say that we just need to stick with the progressive agenda of Safe Injection Sites and Safe Sleeping Sites until we can build enough single unit apartments for the state’s 116,000 unsheltered homeless, most of whom are either addicted to hard drugs, suffering from untreated mental illness, or both.
The problem, Shellenberger explains, is that the New Left didn’t really want to solve problems through policy. They wanted to overthrow the system and impose their authoritarian vision on everyone. Safetyism, critical-race theory nihilism, and cultural degradation are all tools along the way to imposing that vision. And with that agenda, Shellenberger explains, the good became the enemy of the perfect:
As a result, progressives have created the apocalypse they feared. In California, there are “homeless encampments,” open drug scenes, in the parks, along the highways, and on the sidewalks. But the problem is no longer limited to San Francisco. A few days ago somebody posted a video and photo on Twitter of people in Philadelphia, high on some drug, looking exactly like Hollywood zombies. The obvious solution is to provide people with shelter, require them to use it, and mandate drug and psychiatric treatment, for people who break laws against camping, public drug use, public defecation, and other laws. But progressives insist the better solution is Safe Sleeping Sites and Safe Injection Sites.
Should we be surprised that an ideology that believes American civilization is fundamentally evil has resulted in the breakdown of that civilization? Most American progressives don’t hold such an extreme ideology. Most progressives want police for their neighborhoods. Most progressives want their own children, when suffering mental illness and addiction, to be mandated care. And most progressives want reliable electrical and water management systems for their neighborhoods.
But most progressives are also voting for candidates who are cutting the number of police for poor neighborhoods, insisting that psychiatric and drug treatment be optional, and that trillions be spent making electricity more expensive so we can harmonize with nature through solar panels made by enslaved Muslims in China, and through industrial wind projects built in the habitat of critically endangered whale species.
“Does pointing all this out this make me a conservative?” Shellenberger wonders. It might make him a realist, or perhaps a post-World War II liberal (as opposed to classic, liberty-based liberalism which passed out of favor almost a century ago). It’s too much to move over to the Right, Shellenberger argues, when the new populist version of the Right has begun to embrace a parallel victimology:
And there is a kind of victim ideology on the Right just as there is on the Left. It says that America is too weak and poor, and that our resources are too scarce, to take on our big challenges. On climate change it suggests that nothing of consequence can be done and that all energy sources, from coal to nuclear to solar panels, are of equal or comparable value. On drug deaths and homelessness it argues that parents must simply do a better job raising their children to not be drug addicts, and that we should lock up people, even the mentally ill, for long sentences in prisons and hospitals, with little regard for rehabilitation.
Some of that has nothing to do with victimology, but instead a greater reliance on subsidiarity, which is consonant with conservatism. The victimology on the Right has more to do with suspicion of the establishment and grievances over economic destruction that have gone unaddressed in the move to globalization — as well as a recognition of the incentive structures in place that favor victimology of late. Shellenberger’s correct in that it exists, although not necessarily in the specific forms he perceives, which is why conservatism has fallen out of favor on the Right to the same extent post-WWII liberalism has fallen out of favor on the Left.
Be sure to read it all, though. Even if one doesn’t agree with every conclusion, Shellenberger’s critique is nonetheless powerful — and enlightening.
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