The End of (Whig) History

A man clears debris following the clashes between police and anti-government protesters after a two week campus siege of the Polytechnic University in Hong Kong, China, November 16, 2019. (Adnan Abidi/Reuters)

History goes where we push it. And if we don’t push, someone else will.


ou have to see Hong Kong to believe it. I am glad that I did see it, at least a little of it, last year, in what I am afraid we will remember as the last days of a free Hong Kong.

The new “security” law being imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing is a monstrosity, the sort of thing that often is described as “Orwellian” or “Kafkaesque” but which in fact represents the best efforts of a regime that is in some ways worse than anything imagined by those dystopian thinkers.

Some of my friends on the right have presented this as evidence of the folly of our economic engagement with the so-called People’s Republic of China, beginning with Bill Clinton’s 1994 decision to reverse a campaign pledge and normalize trade relations between our countries. (Some of you may remember that Bill Clinton on the stump was a militant China hawk, while Bill Clinton in the Oval Office was otherwise occupied.) But these are johnny-one-notes. If it’s cloudy outside, then we need new trade restrictions; if it’s sunny outside, then we need new trade restrictions; if Starbucks is out of blonde roast, then we need new trade restrictions. If it’s a day of the week ending in “y” . . . Never mind the reality that our diplomatic position vis-à-vis Beijing was — and is — in fact much stronger with our trading relationship than it would have been without that relationship. If you think it is easy to push around a poor, backward, and economically isolated country, ask yourself why the United States failed to bully India into following Washington’s lead for the whole of the Cold War. Our failures in China are failures of American diplomacy, failures of American policy, and failures of American nerve. If iPhones were made in Timbuktu instead of Zhengzhou, we would still be in the same situation.

Across the border, to China’s north and east, the scene is a little less Orwellian and a lot more 1930s. There has never really been a free Russia, except for maybe for about five minutes between the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of the Russian mafia state.

The Putin regime is pushing through a “constitutional” reform package that would turn back the clock on the formal term limits under which Vladimir Putin notionally operates, extending his potential time in power through 2036 — at which time, Putin’s term no doubt will be extended once again, assuming he lives that long. There’s no retirement plan for gangsters — it is likely that Putin’s political career and his life will end at approximately the same time, one way or another. Putin’s sycophants and imitators, Viktor Orbán and the rest, are learning their lessons well and playing variations on Putin’s theme. Hungary, it bears keeping in mind, is a member of the European Union. The failures in Brussels are of a different kind from the failures in Washington, but their effect has been much the same. Jean-Claude Juncker may call for “plain language” regarding Budapest’s suffocation of democracy and its contempt for the rule of law, but Orbán has good reason to believe that plain language is as far as things will go, if, indeed, things go even that far. Joe Biden and Donald Trump are both just old enough to remember the dramatic events of 1956, when Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest to stop a nascent rebellion against oppression and tyranny. Seeing the free world abandon the Hungarians is, apparently, not a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Back when Bill Clinton was flip-flopping on China, there was a great deal of techno-utopianism in our national mood. We had this nifty and indeed revolutionary new thing, the Internet, which was at that time not yet the sewer it has become. The economy was booming, and the Iron Curtain was fading in our memory. We talked about “Moore’s Law” as though it were a force of nature, an inevitable engine of progress. We even expected similarly “exponential” improvements in everything from education to cancer treatment to poverty — a Moore’s Law for social improvement. And we did see radical improvements, especially in reducing severe poverty. But those were not the result of a Moore’s Law for prosperity or some kind of Hegelian capital-H history. They were the results of good decisions and intelligent reforms, many of them by subsequently underappreciated figures such as Manmohan Singh. They were the result of piecemeal efforts, good luck, hard work, innovation, and a thousand thousand other variables.

The superstition of a Moore’s Law for social betterment, like the superstitious belief that freedom is the “hope of every human heart” or that certain politicians are “on the right side of History,” is a part of the long tradition sometimes known as “Whig history,” the belief that human society marches inevitably toward progress, enlightenment, and liberty. As Professor Glenn Loury once put it, the essence of conservatism is the idea that human nature has no history. George Will expands on that: “The idea that human nature has a history — that human beings only have a nature contingent on their time and place — is the idea that has animated modern tyrannies.”

We start from scratch, every generation. History does not bend inevitably toward justice, or freedom, or decency, or even stability. History doesn’t do that in Hong Kong, or in Moscow, or in Washington or New York City or Los Angeles. History goes where we push it. And if we don’t push, someone else will.

Right now, there is a pretty big push coming from Beijing, and it is being felt well beyond the territorial borders of the so-called People’s Republic. Moscow’s smaller push is felt across Europe and beyond. What is to be done? In the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson is offering refuge to millions of Hong Kong residents holding British overseas passports. “Our natural business lies in escaping,” Thomas More advises in A Man for All Seasons. And that may do, for a time.

Then what?

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