Exceptional or Mediocre?

Cross posted at: Time to Keep Score:

I recently read a speech given by Charles Murray at the 2009 Irving Kristol Lecture. And I think I can say without hyperbole that it is the best, or one of the best speeches I have ever read. It perfectly articulates the concerns that I have, not just about the Obama Administration, but about the general direction that the United States is heading.

He asks the question:

Do we want the United States to become like Europe?

Now, before you dismiss this as yet another diatribe against socialism, read on. Murray acknowledges that are things to admire about the European system. He also points out that the desire to emulate Europe is not necessarily an evil or sinister master plan:

In short, the question has suddenly become urgently relevant because President Obama and his leading intellectual heroes are the American equivalent of Europe’s social democrats. There’s nothing sinister about that. They share an intellectually respectable view that Europe’s regulatory and social welfare systems are more progressive than America’s and advocate reforms that would make the American system more like the European system.

Not only are social democrats intellectually respectable, the European model has worked in many ways. I am delighted when I get a chance to go to Stockholm or Amsterdam, not to mention Rome or Paris. When I get there, the people don’t seem to be groaning under the yoke of an evil system. Quite the contrary. There’s a lot to like–a lot to love–about day-to-day life in Europe, something that should be kept in mind when I get to some less complimentary observations.

One of the primary reasons that this speech stood out to me the way it did was that often we focus on the European economy when pointing out the weaknesses of the socialist system. High unemployment, high taxes, inflation and low incentives are all part of the European system that we would do well to avoid here in the U.S.

However that is not Murray’s focus. He only mentions the economic issue in passing:

The European model can’t continue to work much longer. Europe’s catastrophically low birth rates and soaring immigration from cultures with alien values will see to that. So let me rephrase the question. If we could avoid Europe’s demographic problems, do we want the United States to be like Europe?

Tonight I will argue for the answer “no,” but not for economic reasons. The European model has indeed created sclerotic economies and it would be a bad idea to imitate them. But I want to focus on another problem.

He makes two fundamental points in his speech:

First, I will argue that the European model is fundamentally flawed because, despite its material successes, it is not suited to the way that human beings flourish–it does not conduce to Aristotelian happiness. Second, I will argue that twenty-first-century science will prove me right.

So, instead of listing economic reasons that the United States should avoid becoming like Europe, he outlines cultural reasons. That is, that there are fundamental principles that guide our lives, and that have separated the United States from every other nation on earth.

At the core of those principles is the God given right for each and everyone of us to pursue happiness. He elaborates:

I start from this premise: A human life can have transcendent meaning, with transcendence defined either by one of the world’s great religions or one of the world’s great secular philosophies. If transcendence is too big a word, let me put it another way: I suspect that almost all of you agree that the phrase “a life well-lived” has meaning. That’s the phrase I’ll use from now on.

And since happiness is a word that gets thrown around too casually, the phrase I’ll use from now on is “deep satisfactions.” I’m talking about the kinds of things that we look back upon when we reach old age and let us decide that we can be proud of who we have been and what we have done. Or not.

To become a source of deep satisfaction, a human activity has to meet some stringent requirements. It has to have been important (we don’t get deep satisfaction from trivial things). You have to have put a lot of effort into it (hence the cliché “nothing worth having comes easily”). And you have to have been responsible for the consequences.

He then outlines four areas in which all our happiness, or deeply satisfying endeavors can be defined in:

If we ask what are the institutions through which human beings achieve deep satisfactions in life, the answer is that there are just four: family, community, vocation, and faith. Two clarifications: “Community” can embrace people who are scattered geographically. “Vocation” can include avocations or causes… Seen in this light, the goal of social policy is to ensure that those institutions are robust and vital. And that’s what’s wrong with the European model. It doesn’t do that. It enfeebles every single one of them.

I realize that already this post is growing long. And so I will get to the heart of it. What does he mean when he says that the European model “enfeebles” each of the areas of our lives that provide meaning?

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’s inevitable. 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.

In other words:

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. Think of all the phrases we used to have for it: “He is a man who pulls his own weight.” “He’s a good provider.” If that same man lives under a system that says that the children of the woman he sleeps with will be taken care of whether or not he contributes, then that status goes away. I am not describing some theoretical outcome. I am describing 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. I could give a half dozen other examples. Taking the trouble out of the stuff of life strips people–already has stripped people–of major ways in which human beings look back on their lives and say, “I made a difference.”

And that is the heart of the problem. And that is why I am so opposed to the policies of liberalism. Liberalism, or Progessivism would seek to eliminate personal responsibility, personal accomplishment. It seeks to replace the individual with an institution and to define that individual as only a member of a group. “Middle Class”, “African American”, “Hispanic”, “Rich” and so forth. Liberalism tries to define what “happiness” is, when that is obviously an individual pursuit.

When the government declares that it is going to step in an take over your duty as a father or a mother, or that they will lessen the financial burden of raising a family, then where is the incentive to be a good father, or hold gainful employment?

We need not look further than the “War on Poverty” which almost entirely destroyed the Black family in urban America. The number of single mothers and dead-beat dads among that demographic sky rocketed as the government took more and more responsibility away from fathers and mothers. And of course, poverty also sky rocketed, because there was simply no reason to work, to get ahead, to become exceptional. Why do what is difficult, when the government will provide a meager and meaningless existence?

And what does the “War on Poverty” have to with Europe?

It simply is a microcosm of what is happening on a continental level. The culture of Europe – family, religion – and the motivation to work hard is dying, or even might be already dead.

What’s happening? Call it the Europe syndrome. Last April I had occasion to speak in Zurich, where I made some of these same points. After the speech, a few of the twenty-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.

It was fascinating to hear it said to my face, but not surprising. It conformed to both journalistic and scholarly accounts of a spreading European mentality. Let me emphasize “spreading.” I’m not talking about all Europeans, by any means. That mentality goes something like this: Human beings are a collection of chemicals that activate and, after a period of time, deactivate. The purpose of life is to while away the intervening time as pleasantly as possible.

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? I am surely simplifying, but this has to be part of it: If the purpose of life is to while away the time as pleasantly as possible, what can be worth dying for?

Charles Murray goes on to cite more details and data to back his claims. Its an important speech, and frankly I think it perfectly describes what is happening in the United States. He concludes with a call to action, and a solution for stopping the Europeanization of the United States:

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. It is going to be stopped only when we are all talking again about why America is exceptional, and why it is so important that America remain exceptional. That requires once again seeing the American project for what it is: a different way for people to live together, unique among the nations of the earth, and immeasurably precious.

Today in America religion is ridiculed. Stay at home mothers are mocked. Working hard, and becoming good and great is dismissed and rejected. We celebrate and rejoice in a collective mediocrity. Is that what we want? Are we willing to trade the exceptionalism of America for the leisure and mediocrity of Europe?

The “Progressives” who embrace liberalism may be willing to trade one for the other.

I however, am not.