Belmont Club

Shifting the foundations

The Charles Murray of the Bell Curve fame argues in an WSJ article called “The Europe Syndrome” that the real effect of increasing dependence on the state is that communities, families — and individuals — begin to atrophy like disused muscles. “Europeanization” isn’t a cosmetic change, but a fundamental one. The effect is that we eventually expect things to be “guaranteed” to us by others and stop learning how to do it ourselves. But, from a systems point of view, this is sleight of hand. We are the “others” we’ve been waiting for to save us, and we are also the atrophied.

The problem is this: 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–it drains some of the life from them … it inevitably takes some of the action away from families and communities, and the web frays, and eventually disintegrates. … After the speech, a few of the 20-something members of the audience approached and said plainly that the phrase “a life well-lived” did not have meaning for them. They were having a great time with their current sex partner and new BMW and the vacation home in Majorca, and saw no voids in their lives that needed filling. …

Haven’t the elites always done this? Not like today. A hundred years ago, the wealth necessary to withdraw was confined to a much smaller percentage of the elites than now. Workplaces where the elites made their livings were much more variegated a hundred years ago than today’s highly specialized workplaces.

Perhaps the most important difference is that, 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.

But the fact remains: It is the elites who are increasingly separated from the America over which they have so much influence. That is not the America that Tocqueville saw. It is not an America that can remain America.

It’s an interesting hypothesis, though it remains just that. But if true, it would explain much about the way social mores have changed in the West, including why we are now exhorted not to rescue our neighbors from a fire for “safety reasons”; or why it is acceptable to simply call the authorities if we see a woman being raped right in front of us. It would explain why we need guarantees for everything;  require assurances that we will never have to oppose an international aggressor and are irked — feel cheated almost — when we are compelled to defend ourselves; why we ought never be subjected to a climate change the way it has been changing for all of geological history. It would explain why everything has to be “just so”. Why our BMWs and vacation homes in Majorca are now our birthright, which a stimulus must guarantee. For my money, such a world would be a sterile one, and perhaps more importantly a doomed one.  But if Murray is right, then I hope the trend is only temporary. Maybe it’s natural for families, communities and individuals to feel adrift at this moment as they pass through. Not every feeling of alienation is wrong; in ancient times it was sometimes the darkness that pushed you into the light.

And when they came to Reuel their father, he said, How [is it that] ye are come so soon to day?
And they said, An Egyptian delivered us out of the hand of the shepherds, and also drew [water] enough for us, and watered the flock.
And he said unto his daughters, And where [is] he? why [is] it [that] ye have left the man? call him, that he may eat bread.
And Moses was content to dwell with the man: and he gave Moses Zipporah his daughter.
And she bare [him] a son, and he called his name Gershom: for he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land.