Ross Douthat on Decadence and Dynamism (Ep. 91)

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Mercatus Center
Mar 25 · 40 min read

For Ross Douthat, decadence isn’t necessarily a moral judgement, but a technical label for a state that societies tend to enter — and one that is perhaps much more normal than the dynamism Americans have come to take for granted. In his new book, he outlines the cultural, economic, political, and demographic trends that threaten to leave us to wallow in a state of civilizational stagnation for years to come, and fuel further discontent and derangement with it.

On his second appearance on Conversations with Tyler, Ross joined Tyler to discuss why he sees Kanye as a force for anti-decadence, the innovative antiquarianism of the late Sir Roger Scruton, the mediocrity of modern architecture, why it’s no coincidence that Michel Houellebecq comes from France, his predictions for the future trajectory of American decadence — and what could throw us off of it, the question of men’s role in modernity, why he feels Christianity must embrace a kind of futurist optimism, what he sees as the influence of the “Thielian ethos” on conservatism, the plausibility of ghosts and alien UFOs, and more.

Note: This conversation was recorded on February 25, 2020.

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Read the full transcript

TYLER COWEN: Hello, and welcome to Conversations with Tyler. I’m here once again with Ross Douthat. Ross has a new book out, which I’m a big, big fan of, called The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success.

Ross, welcome.

ROSS DOUTHAT: Thank you for having me back, Tyler. It’s an honor.

COWEN: A very simple question about decadence. I read in the New York Times this morning, which is late February, “In the past several years, Kanye West has announced so many plans. That he wants to start a church. That he plans to run for president in 2024. That he will invent a method for autocorrecting emoticons. That he aims to redesign the standard American home. That he might legally change his name to ‘Christian Genius Billionaire Kanye West’ for a year.”

Is Kanye decadent?

DOUTHAT: No.

COWEN: Why not?

DOUTHAT: Kanye is not decadent because decadence involves drift, repetition, and stalemate, and Kanye’s public persona is defined by creativity, conversion, and reinvention. Now, that’s not to say that Kanye might not participate in decadence. One of the implicit or explicit arguments of my book is that even when you’re a rebel against decadence, it’s very hard to escape these fundamental forces in our society dragging us towards stalemates and repetition.

So maybe all of Kanye’s reinventions and plans to reinvent the question mark come to nothing in the end. But the fact of his ambitions and the fact that he has actually invented a church, right? Kanye has a cult. He has Sunday services that are a unique phenomenon amongst celebrities. So even if there are limits on what he can achieve, he is a force for anti-decadence in a decadent society.

COWEN: So does the popularity of Kanye suggest we’re moving away from decadence? Or is that a kind of placebo we use to insulate ourselves from dynamism? “Oh, I like Kanye.” And then we go about being decadent.

DOUTHAT: That’s probably a little bit of both. You can see this in politics, right? When I started writing the book, a long time ago now, the populist moment hadn’t really arrived in the Western world. So one of the questions hanging over the argument is, Does the populist moment prove that decadence is coming to an end? Does it end with populism and nationalism and the return of history?

I think that’s an open question. The answer that I lean towards in the book is that it doesn’t, that these rebellions are sort of more performative and virtual than real. But their appeal suggests that people aren’t content with decadence, and that is a sign that maybe, at some point, it will come to an end.

Support for Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump partakes of decadence but also represents a desire for something else. And as long as that desire is there, there has to be some possibility of escape.

COWEN: Our mutual acquaintance, Roger Scruton, who died recently — he seemed to love fox hunting and the operas of Richard Wagner. Was that decadence, or is that innovation?

DOUTHAT: I think there are forms of antiquarianism that are sufficiently antiquarian to cease to be decadent and to become almost innovative.

So you could argue that we’ve reached a point where our culture — our mass culture, but also our elite culture — is sufficiently dominated by just repetitions of cultural forms and products from the baby boomer era. That to be an antiquarian, to reach back towards traditions and forms and aesthetic forms that were popular 150 years ago, is also an escape from decadence.

So there we go. Kanye isn’t decadent; Roger Scruton isn’t decadent. We’re whittling away at my thesis one celebrity, or late celebrity, at a time.

COWEN: Are you decadent? You wrote a column about architecture, and in that column you say, “Making American architecture a little more traditional . . . certainly wouldn’t hurt.”

Shouldn’t American architecture be more like Kanye West?

DOUTHAT: Yes, that is decadent. Absolutely. I would say that, basically, the place that modern architecture has ended up and the traditionalist alternative are both sort of decadent, and I prefer the traditionalist forms on aesthetic grounds. But I recognize that they are not dynamic and innovative, that you’re accepting that we’ve reached some dead end in architectural style making and choosing the beauties of traditional forms over some of . . .

Frankly, the less the ugliness, the more the mediocrity that, I think, a lot of post-1960s architectural forms have ended up with. So under my definition, the golden age of brutalism is not decadent. It’s bad, right? I don’t like brutalist architecture —

COWEN: I do.

DOUTHAT: But we can find common ground, at least, in that it was trying to create a distinctive style for a disenchanted age and express something about modernity and the forms. Whereas I think that — and I say this: I’m not a professional architecture critic, so take this with a grain of salt — but the last 25 years of public architecture has been less spectacularly ugly and more just mediocre imitations of more striking modernist forms. But you probably have stronger opinions on this than I do, ultimately.

COWEN: I’m more of an optimist about architecture. The new art and interiors of homes, it seems to me, have become much better. It’s hard to see them precisely because they’re interiors. But when I was a kid, it was very rare you’d see a nice interior of any home, even of a wealthy person. Now, even an upper-middle-class person, you might think, “My goodness, that looks amazing.”

I was in someone’s house in Lubbock. It was gorgeous. That’s Lubbock, Texas, right?

DOUTHAT: Yes, HGTV — the interiors suggest a certain kind of aesthetic progress, although in other ways, HGTV is decadent, so it’s complicated.

COWEN: There’s a famous quotation, with the source actually being contested or unknown, and it goes as follows: “America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between.” True or false?

DOUTHAT: Was that not Clemenceau?

COWEN: People don’t agree.

DOUTHAT: People don’t —

COWEN: Probably it was someone before him, some version of that.

DOUTHAT: Yeah. I enjoy that quote without agreeing with it. I think that America, in many respects, really did represent a particular peak of civilizational progress in the years of its ascent from somewhere in the 19th century up until the moon landing. So I would defend the civilization of the Americans.

It’s particular. There are certain forms — high cultural forms — that America has not specialized in. But America has produced a lot of great mass art, and a certain amount of good elite art, and a lot of impressive technological progress. And I think that adds up to civilization, not barbarism.

COWEN: Was the moon landing, in some sense, a mistake? That after we did that, we patted ourselves on the back too much, and we weren’t sure what to do for an encore, however glorious it may have been?

DOUTHAT: No, it wasn’t. It wasn’t a mistake. You had to do it. It was the thing to be done. It was the furthest step we could take into space that was dramatic and a sort of embodiment of human beings going beyond the planet Earth.

COWEN: But why did we basically stop a little bit after that?

DOUTHAT: What I want to say, as a critic of decadence, is that there was some failure of will or of nerve and so on, but you know —

COWEN: But that’s endogenous, right?

DOUTHAT: Right. You have to acknowledge that the problem with space is that, under current technological conditions, the moon landing was what we could do, and there wasn’t that much else that we could do, certainly that had the presumable financial rewards or opportunities for people starting new lives.

All of the things that drove ages of discovery in earlier periods in human history just weren’t available and still aren’t available. And whatever the sort of psychological civilizational factors at work, that’s the dominant reality that people like me, who really want to go into space, have to acknowledge.

COWEN: But we did settle Nevada afterwards, right? Is that not the greater achievement? They’re both dry, distant.

DOUTHAT: [laughs] The settlement of Nevada is, in a sense, yes, maybe the last great blow against decadence struck, but the way we settled it was not universally . . . I think you can see Las Vegas is decadent under the standard definition of decadence which involves —

COWEN: But not yours.

DOUTHAT: No, but it’s decadent under mine, too, in the sense that it represents a kind of simulated sublimity where you are creating models of all of the great achievements of the human species in the modern world and practicing various forms of entertainment around them. So in that sense, it is under my definition too, not just the chocolates-and-bondage-dens definition. I think it is decadent.

I borrow this concept of the technological sublime from David Nye, and before him, Perry Miller, a couple of great American historians — this idea that American history is punctuated by these moments of some technological breakthrough that’s also a kind of wonder of the world.

And that is distinctively American in a way that is not — in spite of the Eiffel Tower and other things as European examples, does sometimes seem to the more sophisticated European mind, maybe mildly barbaric — our delight in our steam engines and transcontinental railways. But I think it’s been a distinctive part of the American experience that has run out since the moon landing.

And Las Vegas and the iPhone, in different ways, are imitations of that but are more focused on simulation and entertainment than the steamship and the railway and the space shuttle were.

COWEN: Of all the Western nations, given your notion of decadence, which is the least decadent?

DOUTHAT: Are we counting Israel as Western?

COWEN: Not for the purposes of this question.

DOUTHAT: Then probably the United States of America.

COWEN: And what would be number two?

DOUTHAT: I have an impulse to say France, which is sort of strange, right?

COWEN: France? Why France?

DOUTHAT: I would put it this way: I think France is, in certain ways, very advanced in decadence, but it’s also a place where a lot of forces of post-decadence — whatever that may be — are sort of in play in really interesting ways. It’s a place that has some of the most interesting political and intellectual debates about liberalism and post-liberalism, even though it hasn’t actually seen a far-right or far-left party take power.

It’s a place that’s a particular example of the uneasy confrontation between a decadent Europe and Islam and Islamic immigration.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the great chronicler of decadence, Michel Houellebecq, comes from France. In that sense, I think France is both further advanced in its decadence, but also, therefore, more interested in and open to whatever strange things lie beyond. But that’s speculative.

COWEN: Are you long or short France?

DOUTHAT: I am long France in the sense that I think that it is the most likely crucible for whatever forces are going to reshape Europe over the next 100 years. I am short France in the sense that that means it is the place most likely to have a civil war, maybe in the next 100 years. So, long in terms of drama, short maybe in terms of stability.

COWEN: [laughs] I think that means short.

DOUTHAT: Only if you’re an investor, not if you’re a journalist.

COWEN: [laughs] What if I were to argue Canada is, in fact, highly innovative? They seem to have completely sane governance, which is now all of a sudden a novelty, and several of their major cities have foreign-born populations of more than half the total. It works very well.

DOUTHAT: Yes.

COWEN: Also, a lot of those populations are non-Western, different religions. In world history, this is quite astonishing: sane governance and so many foreigners, and their cities are wonderful. Why isn’t that this phenomenal innovation and Canada is the least decadent country, in your sense?

DOUTHAT: I think that’s a reasonable argument, and the careful reader of my book will notice that I don’t talk a great deal about Canada, in part because it doesn’t display as fully a lot of the manifestations of decadence that I’m talking about — political gridlock and sclerosis — which I think fits much of Western Europe, fits the United States, in certain ways fits the Pacific Rim. It has some of the same issues of demographic decline as other countries, but it’s not as steep as East Asia.

And, as you say, it has managed a certain kind of immigrant assimilation in ways that other Western countries are struggling with. In that sense, Canada — if it is decadent, it has decadence without some of the more extreme difficulties associated with it.

I guess my question for you, as an observer of Canada, is, At what point does this sort of Canadian exceptionalism start to dramatically influence the world? And fundamentally, should we think of Canada as a large country, which it is, or as a small country, which it also is?

COWEN: Small country.

DOUTHAT: Right.

COWEN: In some ways, like the Nordics. I’m not sure Canadian exceptionalism will last, but I find striking the question, Why don’t more Americans actually want to move to Canada? They would take either of us, right?

DOUTHAT: That’s very flattering to us, but —

COWEN: We’re still sitting here in Northern Virginia.

DOUTHAT: My wife has descended from Canadians on one side, from Newfoundland and Ontario. And when things get particularly hot on Twitter, she will sometimes suggest that she needs to reclaim her Canadian citizenship.

But I actually think that is how certain Americans think of Canada — not as a land of opportunity, but as sort of a stable and lower-risk version of the US to which they can abscond. And to the extent that’s true, then that suggests that there is this kind of resilient dynamism in the US that comes with risks but doesn’t seem to be on offer in Canada.

But do you think that’s out of date? How dynamic do you think Canada is right now?

COWEN: I think market size matters greatly. So talented Canadians come to the US in great numbers, but not so much vice versa. So it could just be that people care about market size much more than they care about the kinds of issues you and I talk about, and that always gives me pause. Just size of the country seems to be a more important variable relative to the amount of print space it gets from public intellectuals. And that’s why we don’t want to go to Canada. Plus, it’s cold.

DOUTHAT: It is cold. And all Canadians live in a very narrow strip of Canada. The population distribution is, as you would expect, extraordinarily compressed. In effect, geographically, it functions like a very nice northern province of the US with an immense and entertaining hinterland.

COWEN: They will get mad at you for saying that. To me, it feels more like a series of independent city-states on our margins, but I think I would find it problematic to live in a city-state, even in the US. When I go to Texas, I feel comfortable. It’s like I’m in a big country. But when I go to Rhode Island, I feel claustrophobic.

DOUTHAT: But also, the city-state model historically, the most dynamic . . . If you think of, obviously, Venice as a city-state, but even quasi city-states, like you can see the Low Countries in the 17th century as quasi city-states functioning within a landscape of empire. But they have tended to be influential, in part, because of their geographic placement.

Maybe that matters less globally than it once did, but it still feels like Toronto is a terrific city, but it’s not . . . If Toronto were dropped down in a different part of the world, it might be a more influential city.

COWEN: Is decadence cyclical, or it just keeps on getting worse and worse?

DOUTHAT: I think that it can be cyclical. One way to look at it is that, under my definition, it’s a very normal thing for human societies to enter into, perhaps much more normal than the kind of dynamism that we have taken for granted in the US. And to the extent that it reflects patterns of prosperity leading to torpor and stagnation, you would expect a kind of cyclical phenomenon, right?

To take the demographic example, you have real, substantial demographic decline in the Western world. Some of that just reflects the fact that we had this huge influential generation, the baby boom generation, that didn’t have nearly as many kids as their parents did and has sort of bestridden our world for a long time.

It’s possible — it’s sort of a subtheme of the book that, as the baby boom generation passes to their reward, that decadence will ease a little bit, and there’ll be more room for young people to do creative things and attain positions of power and all these kinds of things, and the demographic landscape of Western societies will change a little bit.

So in that sense, I think you can tell a cyclical story and certainly can see cyclical stories in history. I do think, though, that if you just push existing trend lines in the Western world forward, you would say the decadence is likely to deepen, at least over the next 25 to 40 years.

Right now, just to stay with fertility, there does seem to be a kind of low fertility trap that countries get into, where you have small families. Growth and vigor slow down, and in that landscape, there’s less support for having children. So fertility rates stay low, and that drives economic growth rates lower, and those things feed on one another.

That’s why I spend a certain amount of the later parts of the book talking about scenarios that are more disjunctive, where you need something unexpected and dramatic to happen to shift things.

Maybe that’s a particular invention that we’re on the cusp of reaching, or maybe it’s a religious revival that we don’t expect. I think the decadence we have now requires some sort of disjunctive event to shift us out of it, which could very well happen. But if you just plot the course of the United States forward to 2050, I would say that we stay decadent.

COWEN: Maybe the problem with the low birth rate — it’s not that kids aren’t fun, but men are not fun. So once women have some wealth or employment opportunities at all, they don’t need men as much. Those men don’t compete as much to marry those women. You have families forming later or not at all, or there’s high rate of single motherhood of course. But you’ll just have fewer kids. What would possibly reverse the problem of men simply not being that much fun?

DOUTHAT: I think it’s a hard question.

COWEN: Your kids are a lot of fun, right?

DOUTHAT: Right, but you’re right, that’s if you track right. If you track fertility declines in not just the US but, to take a strong case, Finland, which has had, in spite of all its social supports for child-rearing that are the envy of family policy experts the world over — their fertility rate keeps falling. And it seems to be just a consequence of all the trends you said: delayed marriage, delayed family formation, and men, in particular, not seeming to have a clearly defined role.

I go back and forth on this because on the one hand, we have three kids, we’re about to have a fourth —

COWEN: Oh, congratulations.

DOUTHAT: Thank you. And it seems to me, as an observer of marriages and child-rearing, that men are very important, even in our postfeminist, postindustrial age —

COWEN: The good ones.

DOUTHAT: Right, the good ones. But that should create an incentive for cultures and societies to form good ones and to figure out, How do you form good men in this landscape? And we haven’t. It’s pretty clear that we aren’t figuring out exactly how to do that.

Instead, you have these selection effects, where you increasingly have male spaces and female spaces that aren’t single-sex spaces. They aren’t spaces where women go to be women, and men go to be men, and then they meet in the dating market. They are spaces that are heavily female but have a certain percentage of males, or heavily male but have a certain percentage of females, have their own sort of self-contained dating markets where, because of the imbalance, there ends up being hostility between the sexes.

Thus, you have the far-right incels online, complaining about how women are terrible because in their world, there aren’t very many women. So all of the incentives are for women to behave like normal human beings and take advantage of their position. And then on the other side, in left-wing academic environments, you have fewer men, so the men don’t behave as well, and the women feel like the men are terrible.

That seems like a hard cycle to break, and it does seem like you would need some sort of effectively cultural campaign around rebuilding male education and manhood. Right now, the models for that are polarized between conservative religious models that, as a conservative religious person, I’m in favor of, but they obviously have a limited purchase in the culture as a whole, and then more feminist models that are trying to remake men along the lines of female virtues that I don’t think actually work, that don’t effectively identify core ways of making men successful as men.

But I do think — to be the social conservative for a minute — I do think pornography plays a really nasty role in all of this. A society that stigmatized and limited pornography would have at least slightly better men. I think readily available, constantly available pornography pushes men away from women, pushes men away from the cultivation of masculine virtues, makes them less marriageable, makes them literally more impotent in certain ways, and is a sort of underappreciated aspect in the decline of men.

COWEN: In the theology of original sin, what percentage of men are the good ones?

DOUTHAT: Zero.

COWEN: Zero.

DOUTHAT: Well, setting aside Jesus. But the famous phrase, “the line between good and evil runs through every human heart” — we just had this horrifying thing in my own Catholic world where Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche — this set of communities where people care for the disabled, but really, they’re communities where people live together. It’s not hospitals for disabled people. It’s communities of people living together — who had died recently, was considered a living saint, and had done incredibly good things.

I personally know people, young men, whose lives were transformed by working in these communities or just writing about these communities. It came out that he had, not a Harvey Weinstein problem, but a milder religious version where he had pressured women, including nuns, into sexual relationships. To their credit, the community put out a report about this.

But men, Catholic men, that I know or observe on the internet were particularly devastated by this because he was this model of saintly Catholic masculinity for them, so it’s a terrible thing. But it’s also — I’m circling around back to your original question — because it doesn’t take away, it doesn’t eliminate the good things he did. He did tremendously good things. He had saintly aspects, but he wasn’t a saint. He had that line running right down the middle of his heart.

COWEN: Do the arguments of your new book lead you to admire Mormonism more?

DOUTHAT: I admired Mormonism a great deal —

COWEN: But at the margin, right?

DOUTHAT: — before I wrote the book, but yes! You asked about nondecadent spaces in the Western world. Israel is one, and you could argue reasonably, I think, that Utah is another.

There is a difficulty for Mormons in that the founding of their faith and some of the pretty obvious controversies associated with it have pushed them a little bit away from certain forms of intellectual and theological work that you would want a really successful religious community bent on evangelizing the United States to be able to do. So that is sort of my non-Mormon Christian caveat about Mormonism.

But in general, I went out to Salt Lake City when Mitt Romney was running for president. They were trying to introduce journalists to Mormondom. We didn’t get to see their Holy of Holies, but we got tours of the missionary centers and the supermarket/food banks that they run for low-income people.

Speaking as a member of a Christian church — Catholicism — that has entered into its own obvious form of decadence in the US over the last 50 years, it’s a shaming experience in certain ways to see what the Mormons can do in the most basic forms of Christianity: feed the hungry, clothe the naked, help drug addicts, help people get their lives together while also serving God. It’s a remarkable and admirable thing that, basically, every other Christian church in the US should be envious of.

And they combine this — in a way that does fit with some of my speculations in the book — with this strong interest in economic development and technological progress. There isn’t high Mormon theology and high Mormon aesthetics, but certainly, the technical side of Americanness is very much on display in Mormon culture.

COWEN: If you see Israel as relatively nondecadent, do you then infer that being under military threat all of the time is what keeps decadence away?

DOUTHAT: Certainly that is one thing, yeah, Israel — there seems to be some sort of existential issue involved in how people think about the future, and part of the book is suggesting that there is a loss of optimism in the Western world, a sense that frontiers are closed. We’re not going to go to the stars. We’re stuck here with ourselves. We’re bored. What do we do now? But there’s also a sense in which extreme pessimism or extreme concern about the future can be a spur against decadence.

And what’s so striking about Israel in demographic terms is that Israel is the one country at its level of income that has a birth rate, not just at replacement, but way above replacement. It’s dipped a little in the last couple of years. And people hear that statistic and say, “Well, it’s just the Ultra-Orthodox having big families.”

But in fact, secular Israelis have much larger than American average families as well, again, in a landscape where their children are in more geopolitical peril than children in the US, in a country that is built out of a desert on a narrow strip of land up against the Mediterranean.

Now politically — we’re recording this in the midst of the interregnum between Israeli elections, of which we’re on track to have 17 in the next year or so — I think that you can see elements of the same political decadence on display in other countries on display in Israel too. So I don’t want to suggest that they’re exempt from the trends I’m describing, but they are — like the Mormons — exceptional relative to the rich society norm.

COWEN: To get back to the theme of your own decadence — you’ve written columns skeptical of the internet. You mentioned pornography a moment ago, which is usually now consumed over the internet. Presumably when it comes to CRISPR babies and transhumanism and genetic engineering, you’re at least partly skeptical, maybe very skeptical.

But if you think those are the areas right now where we’re seeing the major advances, isn’t it the case that, to overcome decadence, you have to actually embrace the innovations that you yourself are not comfortable with? The printing press in its early days led to religious wars. The Catholic Church —

DOUTHAT: I would have certainly been against the printing press, yes. Definitely, there are places where there is a tension between my Catholic or Christian moral commitments and my desire to escape decadence, and certainly I think elements of transhumanism are one of them. And I say as much in the book — you could imagine a real transhuman revolution that would not be decadent, that would mark the end of decadence as I’m describing it, but that I would not welcome.

Decadence isn’t necessarily a moral judgment. I’m stealing my definition from Jacques Barzun, who said, “It’s not a slur, the term, it’s a technical label.” And in that sense, to the extent that it’s a technical label, you have to be able to say things could happen that ended decadence and didn’t lead to collapse or catastrophe, that led to development, change, dynamism, that from a moral perspective I might find repellent.

It’s also why I’m drawn much more to the older frontier, the idea of the space program and space as a frontier, because that’s a case that I think the idea of human beings, as they are, going exploring seems to me much more fundamentally appealing than the idea of human beings staying put and changing who we are.

I’m drawn much more to the older frontier, the idea of the space program and space as a frontier, because that’s a case that I think the idea of human beings, as they are, going exploring seems to me much more fundamentally appealing than the idea of human beings staying put and changing who we are.

I can imagine someone with a different worldview having the opposite reaction, although Silicon Valley seems to have both reactions. You have both investment in space and investment in transhumanism, so they’re playing both sides of the escape-from-decadence scenario.

COWEN: You’ve argued at times that popes should never step down. Would you feel the same way if life extension meant that popes would live to the age of 140 or 150?

DOUTHAT: In that scenario — now we’re into totally speculative terrain — I think that you would expect popes to be elected later, and I think a 50-year pontificate is generally an unwise thing for the Catholic Church in the same way that a 50-year span of governance by any really powerful figure often ends up in bad places in the end. But in the scenario you’re describing, I would imagine that you would elect popes at the ripe late middle age of 120 —

COWEN: New York Times columnists also, right?

DOUTHAT: Well, that would be —

COWEN: You’d be 117, and you’d finally get a column.

[laughter]

DOUTHAT: I think in that case, yeah, you would — maybe 93. The perfect zone for the columnist would be age 80 to 100, and then you would step down. I’ve been a columnist for 10 years, and my assumption is that I will run out of things to say at some point. I just turned 40, so maybe 50 is the point at which I want to have fully transitioned to writing fantasy novels instead.

COWEN: I’ve argued that Peter Thiel is the most influential public intellectual on the right today. Agree or disagree?

DOUTHAT: Mostly agree.

COWEN: Why?

DOUTHAT: Well, first I should say, I have to agree because anyone who reads the book will find a number of quotations from Peter Thiel throughout. And I have, with some emendations, mostly accepted his analysis of the technological and economic component of our stagnation. So I am indebted to him.

I think that he — in his own evolution — has followed, but in certain ways blazed a trail for other evolutions of younger conservative intellectuals who are, in certain ways, in search of a new fusionism — one way to put it. Modern conservatism begins with the fusionism of social conservatism and mid-century Hayekian — Hayek to Rand — that wide spectrum of libertarianism.

There’s a general sense that that kind of fusion has broken down, and you have people who imagine a new conservatism that’s just social conservatism. Then you have libertarians who imagine a libertarianism that leaves conservatism behind.

But there are a lot of people who want to put things back together again, but in a slightly different way, and to make an argument that’s maybe like the argument that I end up with in the book, that there is some interesting alchemy between a society that looks a little further back and a little further ahead. So what I was saying earlier about Scruton, right? The idea that looking back to the 19th century or the 17th century isn’t necessarily decadent because it also lets you, maybe, look a little further ahead.

I think that’s, in certain ways, there in at least some of Thiel’s stuff where he’s simultaneously sympathetic to . . . He’s an eccentric Christian of some sort, maybe. He’s, at the very least, sympathetic to religious conservatives in a way that other Silicon Valley figures are not. At the same time, he is a dynamist in a way that the most Burkean version of social conservatism isn’t.

You’ve written about the idea of state capacity libertarianism, right? I think that’s one example of ways in which people who are skeptical of wherever liberalism is right now are trying to forge something else.

So some combination of a strong state, some kind of small-c conservative social renewal, and some sort of futurism offers some kind of alchemy. Thiel — he wrote Zero to One, which has an implicit political teaching, but there isn’t a Thielian manifesto at the moment. I think his influence is in the inchoateness of his combination of ideas, sort of speaking to the inchoateness of other people’s combinations of ideas.

He wrote an essay — there was a piece very critical of him, of course, I think in New York Magazinebut that looked at this essay he wrote for First Things a little while ago that had this very particular point aimed at Christian readers where he said, “Look, the Bible begins in a garden and ends in a city.”

I’d read that essay when he wrote it, and I think it actually did have some subconscious or conscious influence on me where I think there’s a strong religious, conservative draw towards pastoralism, towards the idea — my friend Rod Dreher’s book, The Benedict Option, has this idea of the retreat into the monastery, the retreat into the Wendell Berry farming community, and so on.

And I think that has to be — for Christianity to be a plausible faith for our civilization — that has to be balanced with a certain kind of the futurist optimism that has always been part of Christian cultures. And I think that —

COWEN: Always?

DOUTHAT: Two thousand years of history probably offers a lot of counterexamples, but I think the Christian world, in general, has been hospitable to dynamism. I think that’s a fair characterization of the history of Christianity, yeah.

COWEN: Do you think there could be a Peter Thiel manifesto, whether written by him or someone else? Or does the very existence of the Bible, or possibly the church, render that impossible, and thus much of it has to exist on the Straussian plane? And if thus more powerful —

DOUTHAT: Tell me more. What do you mean by the existence of the Bible or the church?

COWEN: The Bible sets out a very definite worldview — or worldviews, of course, depending on how you read it or even what you consider to be the Bible. But if you write a manifesto, you then have to lay out, What in the Bible are you agreeing with or not? And the manifesto then becomes quite subordinate or overly rebellious, and maybe the ideas are most powerful in the Straussian realm, where notions are hinted at, and you have to put the pieces together for yourself.

There’s a certain power to all of the ideas not being fully spelled out, and they also can evolve more freely in a dynamic way, which reflects the dynamism.

DOUTHAT: That’s possible. I think it’s particularly possible for someone like Thiel, who clearly has a very heterodox relationship, whatever it may be, to Christian faith. So yeah, you’re right that any manifesto he put out would highlight more clearly his points of tension with both the religious traditions that he is in dialogue with and the different broken factions of conservatism that he’s in dialogue with.

And the Thielian ethos, to me — well, it’s a venture capitalist’s ethos in the sense that he’s invested in Christianity and invested in transhumanism, so eternal life. He’s got an investment in eternal life and an investment in physical immortality, and he’s invested in disaster preparedness but also willing to invest — which I as a pundit was not — in the candidacy of Donald Trump.

So in that sense, a specific manifesto would limit his capacity to be poking at a lot of different points of our decadence and seeing where you could push your finger through. Maybe that’s not the right metaphor.

COWEN: Other than just mentioning the pope, do you think that most young people today could answer, with any kind of specificity, what is the difference between Catholics and Protestants in the United States?

DOUTHAT: No.

COWEN: Does that concern you? Do you care?

DOUTHAT: Yes, of course.

COWEN: What’s the difference they should focus on that they’re not grasping right now?

DOUTHAT: In fairness, you don’t want to overestimate the capacities of normal human beings in times past, right? It is not the case that there was some golden age of Christian history where farmers and peasants in rural Germany could recite the anathemas of the Council of Trent. I mean, this is —

COWEN: But they would read pamphlets about the anathemas of the Council of Trent.

DOUTHAT: Or they would have an intuitive grasp. I think if you asked a lot of people prior to Vatican II, what are the differences between Catholicism and Protestantism, they wouldn’t cite the Council of Trent. They would say, if they were Protestant, that Catholics have weird superstitious rituals and spooky nuns and priests. And if they were Catholic, they would say Protestants don’t really believe in the Virgin Mary, to be crude.

A signal failure of Catholicism since the ’60s — it’s not defined necessarily in the inability of people to recite the catechism, chapter and verse, but it’s more in that cultural and liturgical distinctive area.

So if you go into a typical suburban Catholic church — and I’ve been to mass in a lot of them — it can feel like a mainline church with a tiny bit more formality and a statue of Mary. And that, I think, is a mark of Catholicism’s attempt to assimilate to what was, in the ’60s, still a Protestant mainstream.

But now that that Protestant mainstream is gone, it just leaves Catholicism as this extra mainline denomination. And that will — since we’re talking about ways out of decadence — I do expect that to change over the next 50 years because I think Catholicism, more than evangelicalism, is likely to go into steeper decline over the next generation institutionally.

What will be left behind will be a weirder and more distinctive Catholic faith that will have some clearer differences from its Protestant neighbors than exist right now. But that’s a case of shrinking in order to become distinctive and dynamic again.

COWEN: If you’re worried about some aspects of the relative decline of Catholicism, why make marriage of the priesthood such a central issue for the church? As you well know, the Orthodox Church in the East has a very different attitude toward marriage of priests, and they are, broadly, a Catholic church, historically. Why not side with them? They are still distinctive, right? No one would confuse them with modern American Protestantism.

DOUTHAT: They are still distinctive. There are some wrinkles there. A lot of the Orthodox churches don’t let married men become bishops, and it’s a little bit more complex. But in general, it’s a case of — just to analyze it in cultural terms, leaving theology out of it — it’s another case of giving up a distinctive, giving up something that separates you and distinguishes you from other churches and suggest to people that there’s something interesting and particularist going on here.

Then there are structural hurdles, too. The Catholic Church is not actually set up to provide for married pastors and their families.

COWEN: But that’d be self-financing, right? If they chose to do it?

DOUTHAT: Well, they’d have to. They could try and finance themselves. Yeah, that is what —

COWEN: But more people would become priests if they could marry.

DOUTHAT: See, I’m not completely sure. I think you would see a temporary bump in the number of people becoming priests, but in general, there’s a problem of talent recruitment for mainline Protestant denominations, too. And also — this is the more Catholic argument — there’s a dynamic relationship in a healthy Christianity between a church having strong models of celibate life and strong models of married life.

When that goes away, in fact, married life gets harder, too, because there’s this sense that everyone is supposed to get married. If you’re not married, you’re defective, and marriage is the highest form of life. So, if your marriage isn’t particularly happy, then you should get out of it and find a better marriage. In fact, I think having a commitment to celibacy at the heart of your religion is better for the diversity of human types and experiences than just making marriage the summit of all things.

And it’s also — this is more of the argument of my last book than this one, but they relate to one another, I suppose — part of what I find attractive and persuasive about Catholicism is that, not always and everywhere, but in particular ways, it has preserved commitments to the radical side of the New Testament, the nonbourgeois side. I think that’s true in the Church’s resistance to divorce, which has crumbled a bit under this pontificate, but it’s true in issues of celibacy as well.

If you read the New Testament, and especially if you read the Gospels, but Paul’s letters too, you would not come away convinced that this is a religion that’s all about Ross Douthat and his wife and four kids as the model Christian, right? The model Christian is somebody doing something much more radical. And if you drop that or downgrade it from its position in the church, then a piece of New Testament radicalism goes away.

If you read the New Testament, and especially if you read the Gospels, but Paul’s letters too, you would not come away convinced that this is a religion that’s all about Ross Douthat and his wife and four kids as the model Christian, right? The model Christian is somebody doing something much more radical.

And you know that New Testament radicalism is literally what I think God has given us in his most direct and intimate revelation. So it would be a bad idea to jettison it.

COWEN: Here’s a reader question: “I believe 95 percent of Catholic universities are Catholic in name only. Does he agree? In what direction does he hope for the future of Catholic universities? Should the Church withdraw its sanction?”

DOUTHAT: I don’t know about 95 percent, but I think, generally, Catholic universities have followed the same path of imitation and assimilation that I was describing earlier.

COWEN: But say Georgetown — that’s nominally Catholic. But if you went there, it would in no way shape your time as a student, or . . . ?

DOUTHAT: No, I don’t want to be particularly harsh on Georgetown, but I do think it’s the Catholic university that’s most assimilated to the secular model of elite education.

If you went to a school like Notre Dame, it’s possible to go through Notre Dame without having — I should say “Noter Dame,” not Notre Dame; I sound pretentious — it’s possible to go to Notre Dame and have a very mild exposure to Catholicism. But there is an intense Catholic subculture there. There’s a beautiful basilica at the heart of campus. There’s still a real Catholic culture. And that’s a very successful top-tier university.

When I talk to Catholic academics at those kinds of schools, they will often say that the thing that the university supplies — in many cases, it’s not a Catholic identity for every student, but it’s a preservation of a Catholic option and a sort of potential encounter with religion that is not available at a secular university.

This is what a professor at Boston College — which should be cited as another example of a somewhat secularized Jesuit university — said to me. He said, “Look, BC is not going to become as Catholic as it was 50 years ago overnight, but it’s a place where the administration and the president want to preserve some Catholicism within the school.”

And to the extent that schools are trying to do that, I don’t think the Church should withdraw its sanction. That said, I do think there’s a certain range of schools that are now very much quasi secularized, and it wouldn’t be a bad thing if the Church just recognized that, and they came to effective parting of the ways. But I have more hope for the Notre Dame model than maybe your correspondent does.

COWEN: Does the Vatican have too few employees? There’s a Slate article — it claimed in 2012, the Roman Curia has fewer than 3,000 employees. Walmart headquarters at the time had 12,000. If the Church is a quite significant global operation, can it be argued, in fact, that it’s not bureaucratic enough? They don’t actually have state capacity in the sense that state capacity libertarianism might approve of.

DOUTHAT: Right. State capacity libertarianism would disapprove of the Vatican model. And it reflects the reality that media coverage of the Catholic Church doesn’t always reflect, which is that in Catholic ecclesiology and the theory of the institution, bishops are really supposed to be pretty autonomous in governance. And the purpose of Rome is the promotion of missionary work and the protection of doctrine, and it’s not supposed to be micromanaging the governance of the world Church.

Now, I think what we’ve seen over the last 30 years — and it’s been thrown into sharp relief by the sex abuse crisis — is that the modern world may not allow that model to exist; that if you have this global institution that has a celebrity figure at the center of it, who is the focus of endless media attention, you can’t, in effect, get away with saying, “Well, the pope is the pope, but sex abuse is an American problem.”

And to that extent, there is a case that the Church needs more employees and a more efficient and centralized bureaucracy. But then that also coexists with the problem that the model of Catholicism is still a model that was modern in the 16th century. It’s still much more of a court model than a bureaucratic model, and pope after pope has theoretically tried to change this and has not succeeded.

Part of the reality is, as you well know, as a world traveler, the Italians are very good at running courts that exclude outsiders and prevent them from changing the way things are done. Time and again, some Anglo-Saxon or German blunderer gets put in charge of some Vatican dicastery and discovers that, in fact, the reforms he intends are just not quite possible. And you know, in certain ways, that’s a side of decadence that you can bemoan, but in certain ways, you have to respect, too.

COWEN: Abortion, presumably, is an important issue for you. Given that, why not just outright support President Trump?

DOUTHAT: That’s a good question, and the basic answer that I’ve had is twofold. One, I’ve had, throughout Trump’s ascent and well into his presidency, an expectation that the gap between his skill level and competence and the challenges of being president was large enough that over a long enough time horizon, he would lead the US into some sort of catastrophe that would have a dramatically negative effect on the political causes that I care about, even —

COWEN: But it would have to kill many millions of people to outweigh the expected value of the change in abortion policy.

DOUTHAT: But my assumption is that you don’t get a substantial and long-lasting change in abortion policy without a pro-life political coalition that’s capable of governing the country for a long period of time. Maybe I read too much into this experience, but I came of age with George W. Bush’s presidency, who was a pro-life president, who put conservative justices on the Supreme Court. Then his foreign policy mistakes and other issues led to his presidency ending in total catastrophe.

This is unprovable, but I think there is some connection between the subsequent decline of religious affiliation and the total rout of social conservatives on issues of same-sex marriage and this sense that people had in the mid-2000s that religious conservatism was associated with a totally incompetent president and a botched war and then a financial crisis.

So I’ve imagined something similar as the likely endgame for Trump, that something — to pick an example from the news this winter and likely this spring, the coronavirus — that the incapacities of his White House are more likely to lead to some catastrophic failure that dramatically discredits his party and destroys his presidency.

Now, that being said, generally the Trump era has been more stable, more sustainably decadent, if you will, than I expected. And in that sense, I can certainly see why a certain faction of Never Trump says, “Well, we overestimated the tail risks of this presidency, and things are more stable than we thought, and therefore we should welcome his judicial appointments and embrace him for a second term.”

And it could be that I do too much cultural analysis in a way. I spend too much time thinking, “Well, what do younger people in churches think of the hypocrisy involved in evangelical support for Trump? And won’t that lead to a further decline for Christianity that outweighs any gains?” Maybe that kind of analysis is too much analysis —

COWEN: Just who wins might be what matters, right?

DOUTHAT: Right, right. Maybe —

COWEN: If Bernie Sanders wins, that helps one set of ideas, and all the other complicated second-order effects will dwindle.

DOUTHAT: Exactly, and you don’t know . . . The pundit’s mistake is sometimes to try and think 14 steps ahead, and the partisan mind may have a certain advantage, where it just says, “No, we have to win this election and let the future take care of itself.” That still hasn’t brought me around to supporting Trump, but I think my arguments against supporting him are weaker than they were, again, pending the outcome of whatever happens with the coronavirus.

COWEN: We live in an America that supposedly respects religions. Yet, if you were to try to argue in public that, say, a child were possessed by demons, you would be mocked and called insane, whether or not it were true.

Where do you personally draw the line? You respect religions, but are there claims you hear that, when you hear them, you think, “That’s so implausible. It couldn’t possibly be true”? You file it in the insane category the way most people, when they would hear you talk of a child being possessed by demons, would think that’s insane and not required by their supposed respective religions. Do you see what I’m asking?

DOUTHAT: I do. I think it is quite possible for a child to become possessed by demons. And I actually mildly disagree. I think in the circles in which you and I move, that claim would be just greeted with automatic mockery. But I think in American culture writ large, there is plenty of space for at least openness to ideas of the supernatural and the demonic. Yeah, the mockery is still — even in our more secularized age — an elite phenomenon. I’ve struggled to persuade my secular friends of this view, but it’s still the old Chestertonian view that I find the improbable harder to swallow than the impossible.

We were talking about Mormonism earlier, and my objection to Mormonism is not the idea of the Angel Moroni appearing to Joseph Smith. It’s the claim that there existed these large-scale civilizations in Central America for which we have no archeological evidence. I’m much more skeptical of claims that should be amenable to real-world, scientific, archeological — what have you — testing, and don’t pan out, than I am to supernatural claims.

Again, I recognize that’s a minority view in our peer group, but I’m a pretty convinced supernaturalist. The literature on demonic possession is . . . It’s unwise to spend too much time with it because it leads to dark places, but I think it’s quite convincing that there is something going on there that is not adequately explained by existing theories of psychology and the human mind.

COWEN: What’s your point estimate of the probability that what we now call UFOs are, in fact, something interesting and mysterious and related to some kind of life from a distance? Right now.

DOUTHAT: My probability that they are something interesting and mysterious is very high. I would say 80 percent, 85 percent. That they are related to life from a distant planet is a lot lower. I would say quite, quite low, maybe 10-15 percent.

COWEN: That’s very high. [laughs]

DOUTHAT: That’s actually high. I’m going to lose all credibility, so I should go a little lower.

But I think there are two things going on with UFOs. One, there is a historical continuity that I find very persuasive between human stories of fairy encounters from the Middle Ages and the pre-modern period and stories of alien abductions, where you have similar depictions of the creatures involved, similar emphasis on trickery and people playing games with human beings, similar emphasis on sex and quasi-medical experimentation, all of these kinds of things.

What that suggests to me is, on the one hand, that you should assign some probability to the possibility that there are supernatural beings who like to mess with us, who are neither angelic nor demonic.

But leaving that aside, there is some kind of human experience that we don’t fully understand that is not just made up, that is maybe some sort of union, unconscious thing that gets interpreted as aliens in one age and as fairies in another, but it’s real and interesting even if the fairies themselves aren’t real. That’s one area.

Then you have the UFOs that we pick up on video, that we now actually have published in my own newspaper — pretty compelling videographic evidence. It could be that that’s one more example — if the fairies are real — that this is just one more way they mess with us. I think I would assign a slightly higher probability to the weird-advanced-military-technology explanation for those, that they seem a little different from the UFO abduction stories.

Put it this way: There are unidentified flying objects that we can see on videos, that pilots have seen, that are presumably not a hallucination and therefore must represent, one, the supernatural, two, advanced military technology, or three, visitors from another planet. Right?

COWEN: Yes. Three final questions —

DOUTHAT: Wait, I know it’s not my interview, but what is your assigned probability of those options?

COWEN: It’s called Conversations with Tyler, right? Not by Tyler.

[laughter]

COWEN: I said on Marginal Revolution I thought it was maybe up to a 5 percent chance it was real beings, and then I talked myself down to about 1 percent. But 1 percent is still quite high.

DOUTHOUT: One percent is still a lot.

COWEN: So, we should be thinking and talking about it more.

DOUTHAT: What probability do you assign to the supernatural when you think about these? Not for this in particular, but generally. Like if I came to you, and I said, “Tyler, I want you to read the literature on hauntings and ghosts.” Going into reading that literature, what probability do you assign that ghosts are in some sense real?

COWEN: That’s a difficult question because I am so willing to entertain the notion that the true model of physics is so weird. It could be weirder than religion —

DOUTHAT: That is fair.

COWEN: So what you’re calling supernatural, I could say parallel universes.

DOUTHAT: I’ll accept it.

COWEN: So I don’t dismiss the weirdness, but I don’t know what should make me call it supernatural for almost tautological reasons.

DOUTHAT: Yeah. One of the UFO obsessives who pivoted to this fairy interpretation had basically that view. He was arguing that it is a parallel, a bizarre parallel-dimension-being effect. So I’ll allow it. You’re good.

COWEN: Three last questions. As technology advances, won’t we need to end most lives by euthanasia? Not people who fall off cliffs, but you could always hook someone up and keep them going. So, won’t euthanasia become, say, the case for 80 percent of deaths?

DOUTHAT: I understand why people are skeptical of it, but I generally buy the distinction that my own church makes between the withdrawal of care and the injection of lethal drugs. I know that there are areas where that line gets blurry, but I think, yes, over a long enough life-expectancy horizon, human beings would need to create a culture of refusing and withdrawing care. But that is still different from, at least right now, the means we have where you’re actually actively hastening death through interventions designed to do so.

COWEN: Last two questions. First, is Connecticut good?

DOUTHAT: Yes. I just did an interview with a very nice reporter for Connecticut Magazine where I was trying to explain . . . I was saying positive things about Connecticut, but then also saying that it was an example of decadence. It’s a very wealthy American state that has a lot of old institutions. Yale University, in the city that I live in, that is getting older and has trouble attracting young people.

It’s not a dynamic state, or not as dynamic as it once was. But I grew up in Connecticut, so I have that sort of partisanship, but I like living there. I like its mix of intimacy and history and the New England landscape. And I think that if you could rescue Connecticut from decadence, maybe you could rescue the whole world. So —

COWEN: Finally, is Lyme disease good?

DOUTHAT: In the sense that God uses all things for good, yes, but not in any sense besides that. And the next book I’m actually under contract for is about Lyme disease.

COWEN: In your own experience with it.

DOUTHAT: My own experience, but I do think of it, in part, as my own very small attempt to work against decadence. If I could convince readers that there are, in fact, better treatments for Lyme disease available and help people make progress against one particular disease, then maybe that’s a more effective anti-decadence effort than writing an entire book bemoaning the state of civilization.

COWEN: Ross, thank you very much. And again, I’d like to recommend his book to you all, The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success.

Thank you.

DOUTHAT: Thank you, Tyler.

Conversations with Tyler

A podcast in which esteemed economist Tyler Cowen engages…

Mercatus Center

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The Mercatus Center at George Mason University is the world’s premier university source for market-oriented ideas.

Conversations with Tyler

A podcast in which esteemed economist Tyler Cowen engages with today's most underrated thinkers in wide-ranging explorations of their work, the world, and everything in between.

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