Are we headed in the direction of Europe in regards to our social policies? Is this a good thing? Is it a permanent thing?
Recently Charles Murray answered, respectively, “yes..duh, no..duh, and no..phew!”
In the annual Irving Kristol Lecture given at the American Enterprise Institute Dinner, he argues that while such
Europe-style policies might produce an economic benefit or two, they are ill conceived because they suck the meaning out of life. They do this by enfeebling the institutions necessary for robust meaning in life: family, community, vocation, and faith. Lastly, he argues that in the next few decades, science will provide ample evidence that such policies are ill conceived.
His thesis in his own words:
…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.
In other words, the “European model” cannot sustain human happiness. By “happiness” Murray means not a subjective feeling of pleasure, which is the definition that’s currently en vogue, but “deep satisfaction,” or a life well lived.
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.
There aren’t many activities in life that can satisfy those three requirements. Having been a good parent. That qualifies. A good marriage. That qualifies. Having been a good neighbor and good friend to those whose lives intersected with yours. That qualifies. And having been really good at something–good at something that drew the most from your abilities. That qualifies. Let me put it formally: 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.
It is not necessary for any individual to make use of all four institutions, nor do I array them in a hierarchy. I merely assert that these four are all there are. The stuff of life–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–occurs within those four institutions.
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.
How does the European model enfeeble those institutions? It “takes the trouble out of” those institutions. With some things (police), this is a good thing, but when striving and effort are necessary for the proper flourishin of an institution, taking the trouble out of that function weakens it.
Put aside all the sophisticated ways of conceptualizing governmental functions and think of it in this simplistic way: Almost anything that government does in social policy can be characterized as taking some of the trouble out of things. Sometimes, taking the trouble out of things is a good idea. Having an effective police force takes some of the trouble out of walking home safely at night, and I’m glad it does.
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.
If we knew that leaving these functions in the hands of families and communities led to legions of neglected children and neglected neighbors, and taking them away from families and communities led to happy children and happy neighbors, then it would be possible to say that the cost is worth it. But that’s not what happened when the U.S. welfare state expanded. We have seen growing legions of children raised in unimaginably awful circumstances, not because of material poverty but because of dysfunctional families, and the collapse of functioning neighborhoods into Hobbesian all-against-all free-fire zones.
Meanwhile, we have exacted costs that are seldom considered but are hugely important. Earlier, I said that the sources of deep satisfactions are the same for janitors as for CEOs, and I also said that people needed to do important things with their lives. 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. 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.”
This is an interesting analysis. Greg Forster at The Public Discourse concurs that there is much right about these arguments. It fails in one major way, though: it does not take into account the role of a transcendant moral law in sustaining a life well lived:
Take another look at his three criteria for deep satisfaction: importance, difficulty, and responsibility for consequences. Murray draws our attention to several activities that meet those criteria and provide deep satisfaction. But there are other activities that meet those criteria and don’t provide deep satisfaction. Winning an Olympic gold medal by outperforming all other athletes in your sport involves importance, difficulty, and responsibility for consequences. But so does winning by bribing the judges. Yet winning by bribery doesn’t give you the deep satisfaction you get from winning legitimately.
In short, activities don’t provide deep satisfaction if they’re morally wrong. (Aristotle, whom Murray invokes, has a thing or two to say about this subject.) Murray says the activities that provide deep satisfaction are “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.” Activities that are morally wrong don’t pass the “look back from old age with pride” test.
It would be charitable, and plausible, to assume in Murray’s favor that he simply took moral goodness for granted when compiling his list of criteria. But the omission weakens his entire analysis.
This omission leaves Murray’s contentions open to a Socialist’s retort:
…faced with Murray’s argument that the welfare state makes everything too easy, a socialist might well retort: Should everything therefore be made more difficult, so you can have the deep satisfaction of overcoming difficulty? If the welfare state is bad, why are police good? Why not abolish the police so that walking home safely requires more effort (such as arming yourself) and can thereby become a source of deep satisfaction?
We can’t ultimately answer this question without distinguishing between morally legitimate and illegitimate ways of making things easier. Policing the streets makes our civilization more conducive to deep satisfaction because it is right. Coercive redistribution of wealth makes our civilization less conducive to deep satisfaction because it is wrong. Able-bodied people who live on welfare for extended periods are cheating-just as much as an athlete who bribes the judges. That’s why the welfare state has the corrosive effects it does.
While Murray attacks the Socialist Utopia, he misses a key observation when he relies on scientific knowledge (Since I’ve already heavily quoted Murray, you’ll have to actually read the speech to see this part!):
Consider an even more ominous example. Murray argues that the advance of scientific knowledge will increasingly undermine the case for the welfare state by showing that people are born with relatively fixed and stable natural endowments and predispositions. (“Science is proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that males and females respond differently to babies. You heard it here first.”) In other venues, such as his recent book on education policy, Murray has gone further than I would go in elevating the importance of nature over nurture. But one doesn’t need to go as far as he does to recognize that nature does in fact impose boundaries on the efficacy of nurture, and that this is bad news for socialism.
But the same science Murray is counting on to save American individualism may well prove to be its undoing. You can’t have science without engineering. Once we know how human nature works, we will probably figure out ways to tinker with it. Eventually we may figure out how to make people as malleable as socialists wish they were. Once we have that ability, socialists will want to use it.
If Murray’s argument against socialism is that it doesn’t comport with the demands of human nature, how will he oppose the demand to change human nature? In fact, nothing can oppose that demand except a transcendent moral law. (This point will be familiar to anyone who has read C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, the clearest and most concise statement of this case that I know of.)
Science can indeed teach us true things about the world. It has a role to play in this discussion. However, can doesn’t always mean should. Scientific knowledge will give us the power to “tinker with” humanity in a myriad of ways, but this doesn’t mean we should go through with said tinkering. Without acknowledging a transcendent moral law that underpins the enterprise of science, the wall between can and should will be nothing more than a temporary, flimsy chain link fence.
This conversation is good and necessary. Lets hope these points don’t get lost in the orgy of ambiguous “hope and change” rhetoric. Not all change is good; there are some things we shouldn’t hope for.