Wednesday, April 1, 2009

A road not traveled by Americans, yet

By Dean Kalahar

History has shown that nations go through an evolutionary process and either flourish or die. The people of America now face a critical political and cultural question that will determine its long term viability. Do we remain uniquely American, or do we make a fundamental shift and follow the European socialist model in society and politics? The decision we make will affect generations of Americans and so it must not be taken lightly. In this time of uncertainty, a clear and concise interpretation of the situation, as well as a frank discussion of our choices, needs to be outlined.

Charles Murray, who holds a B.A. in history from Harvard and a Ph.D. in political science from M.I.T., may hold the key. He recently gave a speech to The American Enterprise Institute, titled Europe Syndrome, which was both intellectual in its depth and poignant in its content. It serves as the perfect backdrop for guiding America as it faces a pivotal moment in history.

Murray begins his discussion by defining our unalienable right to happiness as a lasting, justified, and deep satisfaction with life as a whole. In other words, “things we look back upon when we reach old age that lets us decide if we can be proud of who we have been and what we have done.” This is in stark contrast to the conventional definitions of happiness meaning simple prosperity, security or equality of results.

“To become a source of deep satisfaction, a human activity has to meet some stringent requirements. It has to have been important. You have to have put a lot of effort into it. And you have to have been responsible for the consequences.” What qualifies as meeting these requirements? Having been a good parent, a good husband/wife, a good neighbor, a good friend, and having been really good at something that drew the most from your abilities. Family, community, vocation and faith are the institutions through which human beings achieve “the stuff of life” and find happiness. They make up “the elemental events surrounding birth, death, raising children, fulfilling one's personal potential, dealing with adversity, intimate relationships--coping with life as it exists around us in all its richness.”

Next, Murray defines how proper government must facilitate happiness. He quotes James Madison: “fidelity to the object of government, which is the happiness of the people; secondly, a knowledge of the means by which that object can be best attained." In other words, government’s job is to protect satisfaction with life as a long term whole and work in ways to best facilitate its fruition. To secure happiness, the goal of social policy, then, is to ensure that the institutions of family, community, vocation, and faith are robust. Government does this by not intruding on their elemental functions.

By these definition, Murray argues, the European socialist model is fundamentally flawed and is not suited to create happiness because “it drains too much of the life from life.” In other words, European government policy and the culture it creates ignore the vital social institutions which give the transcendent meaning to life or an appreciation of "a life well-lived." In fact, the European model “enfeebles every single one of them.”

The reason Socialist governments enfeeble is that they promote government policies that “take some of the trouble out of things.” And “every time the government takes some of the trouble out of performing the functions of family, community, vocation and faith, it also strips those institutions of some of their vitality.”

Families are not vital because the day-to-day tasks of raising children and being a good spouse are so much fun, but because the family has responsibility for doing important things that won't get done unless the family does them. Communities are not vital because it's so much fun to respond to our neighbors' needs, but because the community has the responsibility for doing important things that won't get done unless the community does them. Once that imperative has been met--family and community really do have the action--then an elaborate web of social norms, expectations, rewards and punishments evolves over time that supports families and communities in performing their functions. When the government says it will take some of the trouble out of doing the things that families and communities evolved to do, it inevitably takes some of the action away from families and communities, and the web frays, and eventually disintegrates.

Murray explains that people need to do important things with their lives, and the sources of deep satisfactions are the same for janitors as for CEOs. But here is a big difference. “When the government takes the trouble out of being a spouse and parent, it doesn't affect the sources of deep satisfaction for the CEO. Rather, it makes life difficult for the janitor. A man who is holding down a menial job and thereby supporting a wife and children is doing something authentically important with his life. He should take deep satisfaction from that, and be praised by his community for doing so.” But when the government takes the trouble out of things by promoting policies that take away that which gives us deep satisfaction, the status for the janitor goes away, and the social fabric erodes.

Look at any one of many “American neighborhoods where, once, working at a menial job to provide for his family made a man proud and gave him status in his community, and where now it doesn't.” Or, on the opposite end of the spectrum as Murray recounts, drive through rural Sweden, in every town is a beautiful Lutheran church, freshly painted, on meticulously tended grounds, all subsidized by the Swedish government. And yet the churches are empty, including on Sundays. “Taking the trouble out of the stuff of life strips people of major ways in which human beings look back on their lives and say, ‘I made a difference." Taking trouble out of life strips people of their ability for happiness which should be unconscionable to any enlightened thinker.

Murray calls this disconnect from the happiness of life, the Europe Syndrome, or the spreading mentality that "a life well-lived" does not have meaning for them. The purpose of life then is to while away the intervening time as pleasantly as possible. “What is left is a life lived “in the moment,” “having a great time with their current sex partner, new BMW, and vacation home in Majorca.”

If that's the purpose of life, then work is not a vocation, but something that interferes with the higher good of leisure. If that's the purpose of life, why have a child, when children are so much trouble--and, after all, what good are they, really? If that's the purpose of life, why spend it worrying about neighbors? If that's the purpose of life, what could possibly be the attraction of a religion that says otherwise?

The same self-absorption in whiling away life as pleasantly as possible explains why Europe has become a continent that no longer celebrates greatness. When life is a matter of whiling away the time, the concept of greatness is irritating and threatening. What explains Europe's military impotence? If the purpose of life is to while away the time as pleasantly as possible, what can be worth dying for?

Those who have fallen prey to cultural emptiness see no voids in their lives that need filling and have lost the ability to demand of government the right to capture deep satisfaction through appropriate policy decisions.

Sadly, every element of the Europe Syndrome is infiltrating American life and there is every reason to believe that when Americans embrace the European model, they begin to behave like Europeans.

And yet Murray says there is reason for strategic optimism. We who think that the Founders were right about the relationship of government to human happiness will have an opening over the course of the next few decades to make their case. Not only is the “European model inimical to human flourishing,” 21st-century science is going to explain why. Specifically, the social sciences are increasingly going to be shaped by the findings of biological neuroscientists and geneticists.

These findings will fundamentally alter two premises about human beings are at the heart of the social democratic agenda: what Murray labeled "the equality premise" and "the New Man premise."

The equality premise says that, in a fair society, different groups of people--men and women, blacks and whites, straights and gays, the children of poor people and the children of rich people--will naturally have the same distributions of outcomes in life--the same mean income, the same mean educational attainment, the same proportions who become janitors and CEOs. When that doesn't happen, it is because of bad human behavior and an unfair society. For the last 40 years, this premise has justified thousands of pages of government regulations and legislation that has reached into everything from the paperwork required to fire someone to the funding of high school wrestling teams. Everything that we associate with the phrase "politically correct" eventually comes back to the equality premise. Every form of affirmative action derives from it. Much of the Democratic Party's proposed domestic legislation assumes that it is true.

He believes within a decade, no one will try to defend the equality premise because research will show that “groups of people will turn out to be different from each other, on average, and those differences will also produce group differences in outcomes in life, on average, that everyone knows are not the product of discrimination and inadequate government regulation.” Because of this, “the success of social policy will be measured not by equality of outcomes for groups, but by open, abundant opportunity for individuals. It will be measured by the freedom of individuals, acting upon their personal abilities, aspirations and values, to seek the kind of life that best suits them.”

The second bedrock premise of the social democratic agenda is the “New Man premise” which says that “human beings are malleable through the right government interventions.” This leads us back to the idea that the socialist agenda can fix or perfect man’s negative nature by “taking some of the trouble out of things.”

There is a blind lack of insight among the socialist mindset that “human nature tightly constrains what is politically or culturally possible,” and Murray notes that new findings in evolutionary psychology and genetics will broadly confirm that human beings are pretty much the way that wise human observers have thought for thousands of years. These findings will re-affirm that hard work and happiness gained as a result of government allowing social institutions to flourish unfettered can be the only moral legislative policy.

Social democrats will simply have to stop making glib claims that the traditional family is just one of many equally valid alternatives. They will have to acknowledge that the traditional family plays a special, indispensable role in human flourishing and that social policy must be based on that truth. The same concrete effects of the new knowledge will make us rethink every domain in which the central government has imposed its judgment on how people ought to live their lives--in schools, workplaces, the courts, social services, as well as the family.

The 20th century was “the adolescence of Homo sapiens,” according to Murray, because it was “riddled from beginning to end with toxic political movements and nutty ideas.” And 20th-century intellectuals reacted precisely the way that adolescents react when they think they have figured out life, they assume the grown-ups are wrong about everything and press ahead with smug self-assurance.

Murray reminds us the nice thing about adolescence is that it is temporary, and, when it passes, people discover that their parents were smarter than they thought. The good news is that we're growing out of adolescence and the kinds of scientific advances in understanding human nature are going to accelerate that process. All of us who deal in social policy will be forced into “thinking more like grown-ups” that “must be translated into a kind of political Great Awakening--‘renewals of faith, felt in the gut’--among America's elites.”

Murray says that social engineers have to ask themselves how much they really do value what has made America exceptional: qualities such as American optimism, a lack of class envy, and the assumption by most Americans that they are in control of their own destinies. They then must ask themselves what they are willing to do to preserve it?

American exceptionalism has “come from the cultural capital generated by the system that the Founders laid down, a system that says people must be free to live life as they see fit and to be responsible for the consequences of their actions; that it is not the government's job to protect people from themselves; that it is not the government's job to stage-manage how people interact with each other. Discard the system that created the cultural capital, and the qualities we love about Americans can go away. In some circles, they are going away.”

Murray focuses on elites in urging a Great Awakening because he says it's the top that has such decisive influence on American culture, economy, and governance, even though elites make up only a small percentage of the population. Unfortunately, elites have increasingly been withdrawing from American life on both sides of the political spectrum. This is a significant part of the problem.

Not so long ago, the overwhelming majority of the elites in each generation were drawn from the children of farmers, shopkeepers and factory workers--and could still remember those worlds after they left them. Over the last half century, it can be demonstrated empirically that the new generation of elites have increasingly spent their entire lives in the upper-middle-class bubble, never even having seen a factory floor, let alone worked on one, never having gone to a grocery store and bought the cheap ketchup instead of the expensive ketchup to meet a budget, never having had a boring job where their feet hurt at the end of the day, and never having had a close friend who hadn't gotten at least 600 on her SAT verbal. There's nobody to blame for any of this. These are the natural consequences of successful people looking for pleasant places to live and trying to do the best thing for their children.

This disconnect within the elite American mindset will create an America that is not what we are use to thinking about when we think about America.

Murray states “soberly and without hyperbole, that this is the hour. The possibility that irreversible damage will be done to the American project over the next few years is real.” We as Americans must undergo a re-awakening to ensure that the vital natural law of happiness is preserved by focusing on government that moves in the authentically American direction in lieu if the European socialist vision.

He says it won't happen by appealing to people on the basis of lower marginal tax rates or keeping a health care system that lets them choose their own doctor. The drift toward the European model can be slowed by piecemeal victories on specific items of legislation, but only slowed. To save America we must focus not on a “glossy life” but a “textured life” in “the midst of others who are leading textured lives.” To do this Americans must liberate from the bonds of government, institutions that are “the stuff of life,” through which human beings achieve deep satisfactions and true happiness: family, community, vocation and faith. We must “cope with life as it exists around us in all its richness if we are to be free and fulfill our destinies.”


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