June 12, 2002


Why the U.S. Will Always Be Rich (DAVID BROOKS, June 9, 2002, NY Times Magazine)
America's history doesn't follow the normal life cycle of nations. American standards of living actually surpassed European standards of living around 1740. For about 260 years, in other words, America has been rich. And yet decline hasn't come; Gibbon would have nothing to write about here. American workers are still the most productive on earth, two-thirds more productive than our counterparts in Great Britain, for example. American technology is still the envy of the world, and her universities are the queens of learning. Three-quarters of the Nobel laureates in economics and the sciences over the past few decades live and work in the United States. Spending more on defense than the next 15 nations combined (while still devoting only around 3 percent of the G.D.P. to the military), America is now the undisputed great power of the globe. And as the Yale historian Paul Kennedy wrote recently in The Financial Times, never before in human history has the disparity between the world's greatest power and the next greatest power been so wide.

The reason America hasn't been corrupted by all its wealth is that in this country we have transformed the nature of money. If you have enough of it, and you are sloppy enough with it, and if you have a system that promiscuously sloshes it around from the deserving to the undeserving and back again so that there are great flows of wealth oozing all over the place and great tales of opportunity in every ear, then pretty soon money is no longer just a thing you hoard in the bank. Money has become the environment, and that changes the way it affects people.

Money in America has been transformed into abundance. In the realm of money, money is scarce. But in the realm of abundance, money is promiscuous. And this environment of abundance comes with its own psychology, morality, sins and virtues. It does not create the old corrupting patterns described by the philosophers. [...]

The environment of abundance accounts for the energy, creativity and dynamism that marks national life.

Mr. Brooks is a very entertaining writer but a remarkably shallow social critic as he shows here once again. In this case it would seem that he has rather badly confused cause and effect, for there are quite a few countries--the entire West--that enjoy abundance not all that dissimilar to ours and, while we remain fairly healthy, they face precisely the sort of decline that conservatives have warned about for two centuries. For instance :

Sir Alex Fraser Tytler :

A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largess from the public treasury. From that time on the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury, with the results that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship.

The average age of the world's great civilizations has been 200 years. These nations have progressed through this sequence:
from bondage to spiritual faith;
from spiritual faith to great courage;
from courage to liberty;
from liberty to abundance;
from abundance to selfishness;
from selfishness to complacency;
from complacency to apathy;
from apathy to dependency;
from dependency back again to bondage.

Alexis de Tocqueville :
[I]t is easy to see that the richer a nation is, the more the number of those who appeal to public charity must multiply, since two very powerful causes tend to that result. On the one hand, among these nations, the most insecure class continuously grows. On the other hand, needs infinitely expand and diversify, and the chance of being exposed to some of them becomes more frequent each day.

We should not delude ourselves. Let us look calmly and quietly on the future of modern society. We must not be intoxicated by the spectacle of its greatness; let us not be discouraged by the sight of its miseries. As long as the present movement of civilization continues, the standard of living of the greatest number will rise; society will become more perfected, better informed; existence will be easier, milder, more embellished, and longer. But at the same time we must look forward to an increase of those who will resort to the support of all their fellow men to obtain a small part of these benefits. It will be possible to moderate this double movement; special national circumstances will precipitate or suspend its course; but no one can stop it. We must discover the means of attenuating those inevitable evils that are already apparent.

Albert Jay Nock :
Burke touches [the] matter of patriotism with a searching phrase. 'For us to love our country,' he said, 'our country ought to be lovely.' I have sometimes thought that here may be the rock on which Western civilization will finally shatter itself. Economism can build a society which is rich, prosperous, powerful, even one which has a reasonably wide diffusion of material well-being. It can not build one which is lovely, one which has savour and depth, and which exercises the irresistible attraction that loveliness wields. Perhaps by the time economism has run its course the society it has built may be tired of itself, bored by its own hideousness, and may despairingly consent to annihilation, aware that it is too ugly to be let live any longer.

Jose Ortega y Gasset :
My thesis...is this: the very perfection with which the XIXth Century gave an organisation to certain orders of existence has caused the masses benefited thereby to consider it, not as an organised, but as a natural system. Thus is explained and defined the absurd state of mind revealed by these masses; they are only concerned with their own well-being, and at the same time they remain alien to the cause of that well-being. As they do not see, behind the benefits of civilisation, marvels of invention and construction which can only be maintained by great effort and foresight, they imagine that their role is limited to demanding these benefits peremptorily, as if they were natural rights. In the disturbances caused by scarcity of food, the mob goes in search of bread, and the means it employs is generally to wreck the bakeries. This may serve as a symbol of the attitude adopted, on a greater and more complicated scale, by the masses of to-day towards the civilisation by which they are supported.

Note first of all that what most clearly separates the great voices of the Right from those on the Left is that the conservatives well understood that liberal democratic capitalism was going to create affluent societies. They knew that the system would work, at least to that extent--something which leftists from Marx to Nader have never been able to accept. Indeed, even today, when Francis Fukuyama has proclaimed that liberal capitalist democracy represents the end form of human government ("What we are witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or a passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.") and that pretty much any society that adopts it will achieve abundance, this idea has still been met with tremendous resistance.

But this idea brings us to the second important point of the conservative critique. The dire predictions above have basically come to fruition in most of the West--from Japan to Sweden--these countries have declining birth rates, swollen social welfare systems, high taxes, low productivity, rising crime rates, rising xenophobia, increased racism, etc., etc., etc. Rather than create permanently healthy societies, wealth (after a brief [200 years, as Sir Alex predicted] period of good times) has begun to destroy these nations--with much of Western Europe even sliding back toward racialist fascism. It is really only the U.S. that has resisted the downward pull of late stage democratic capitalism. So the question is why? And the answer obviously can't be its affluence.

Somewhere in some facet of our respective cultures, America diverges from the rest of the West. Something makes us fundamentally different. We still suffer many of the ills of the West--we too have a too large welfare state, though the smallest in the West; we too have too high taxes, though the lowest in the West; we too have population problems, though not as bad amongst the natives and we compensate by massive immigration; we too have experienced a decline in moral standards, but we remain deeply divided over manifestations of this problem like divorce, abortion, homosexuality, bio-engineering, cloning, etc.; we too have racial tensions and anti-immigrant sentiments, yet they have generally eased rather than gotten worse over the last two hundred years. It is not that we have escaped the worst effects of the revolt of the masses, but that we have put up a far stiffer resistance than the rest of the West. What is the source of this resistance?

The answer, the most obvious thing that differentiates American society from all the others of the developed world, is that unique among the nations of the West we have remained a profoundly religious culture. By most measures I'm aware of, America is in fact one of the most religious nations of the world, both in terms of belief and observance. For an astonishing look at why this matters, I'd direct you to the review of this book, Christian Faith and Modern Democracy: God and Politics in the Fallen World (2001)  (Robert P. Kraynak  1949-) , but even more so to the book itself. Here is the core of Professor Kraynak's argument :

The difficulty is that modern democracy's need for a religious basis is no guarantee that one is readily available. As disturbing as it might be for modern believers to admit, the critics of religion have a legitimate point: Christian faith is derived from a revealed book, the Bible, and from church traditions that are not necessarily liberal or democratic in their teachings. The Christian notion of human dignity, for example, is derived from the biblical idea that human beings are made in the image and likeness of God. But it is not clear if the Bible's idea of the divine image in man--the Imago Dei--entails political notions like democracy and human rights, in fact, many great theologians of the past understood it to be compatible with kingship, hierarchy, or authoritarian institutions. The Christian view of human dignity is also qualified by a severe view of human sinfulness and by other difficult doctrines--such as, divine election, the hierarchical authority of the church, and the priority of duties to God and neighbor over individual rights. These doctrines are not always easy to square with democratic norms of freedom and equality, nor are they easily discarded without removing the core of Christian faith.

Thus, we must face the disturbing dilemma that modern liberal democracy needs God, but God is not as liberal or as democratic as we would like Him to be.  [Italics in original]

It should come as no surprise to us then that the nation that has remained most religious (and that means most Christian) has also had the most success in fending off the deleterious effects of democratic capitalism and the resulting affluence. It may be that only by remaining so religiously oriented have we managed to maintain things like : an abiding distrust of ourselves, a belief in our Fallen nature and resulting moral laws; respect for human dignity; an acceptance of hierarchy (as opposed to Europe's extreme egalitarianism); and some sense of other-directedness, that keeps us, on the one hand, from too selfishly demanding that government take care of us from cradle to grave and, on the other, keeps us more disposed toward viewing our spiritual relationship with God as the ultimate end of society rather than mere physical comfort (inner-directedness).

Of course, Mr. Brooks is not a conservative critic of America; he's a neoconservative, and, as such, probably doesn't believe any of this. But he seems to have gotten the warning of America's greatest critic exactly wrong. Alexis de Tocqueville famously said that :

America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.

Mr. Brooks seems to think that the reverse is true, that we are a good society because we are great, because we have a whole lot of stuff. In this way his writings and opinions are symptomatic of the spectacular misunderstanding of American culture by intellectuals generally and must be deeply troublesome to anyone who cares to see America remain great, because in order to do so it must remain good.

What America requires is not self-congratulations about how wealthy and wonderful we are, these are mere products of a system that is increasingly threatened by that very wealth. What is needed is a careful tending of the roots of that system : school vouchers; faith-based social services; a reinvigoration of morality--restrictions on divorce, abortion, and sexual license; massive re-privatization of government, so that we return to dependency on each other instead of on government; etc.. If we do not do such things, we may find that we have not avoided but merely delayed the sorry fate that is consuming the rest of the West. It may be, as Edward Skidelsky has written that :

[T]he fate of liberalism is-in the precise sense the word-tragic. A tragic fate is one that proceeds not from external and accidental causes, but according to an inexorable internal logic. This is precisely the situation of liberalism. It must sever itself from its historical roots in Christianity, yet in doing so it severs itself from the source of its own life. Liberalism must follow a course that leads directly to its own atrophy. It must extirpate itself.

And that seems certain to be our fate if, like Mr. Brooks, we blindly congratulate ourselves on how great we are at the moment instead of trying to keep America good on into the future.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 12, 2002 11:43 AM
Comments for this post are closed.