The Cultural Paradoxes of Capitalism

If this agenda comes to pass, it will mark this period in history as the moment America turned European. — Rep. Paul Ryan, The Wall Street Journal

Earlier this month, Rep. Ryan indicated (also in the Journal) that in “a nutshell, the president’s budget seemingly seeks to replace the American political idea of equalizing opportunity with the European notion of equalizing results.” To be sure, the idea that equality is best appraised according to outcomes draws from a social-justice tradition far more alien to America than Europe. Nonetheless (as at least some red-blooded Americans insist), even more than an irrational exuberance for Europeanism, Obama’s budget reflects an unsustainable surplus of Americanism.

Americans, argue critics from the crunchy, paleo, pessimist, Catholic, Orthodox, and/or communitarian Right, suffer from the market distortions of an ideology of optimism — an ideology which inevitably causes distortions in the market because it depends upon a deeply distorted psychology. While TIME magazine wrote of Keynes that “his radical idea that governments should spend money they don’t have may have saved capitalism,” the alt-cons (not to be confused with the heterodox cons, and for lack of a better word) suggest American optimism requires that our government must spend money we don’t have in order to have the capitalism we consider not just a luxury but a right.

From this perspective, Republicans aren’t so much wrong about the Old World quality of the Obama budget as missing the point — for we wouldn’t be in this mess had Americans been substantially less, well, New World in their unreasonable longing to have it both ways when it comes to prosperity and responsibility. It’s important to recognize here that both alt-cons and heterodox cons tend, when ranging across this intellectual territory, to be hard on Locke and Nietzsche. Both supply Americans with a kind of recklessly individualist creed. Although much divides Locke and Nietzsche, of course, the practical Lockeanism and practical Nietzscheanism of the American people tend to blur together: we take on huge burdens pursuing happiness, and we tolerate all manner of small sadnesses and miniature tragedies — especially where the geographical, emotional, and legal breakup of the family is concerned — in order to get it. We even know that the happiness we seek is sort of a will-o’-the-wisp; obviously, we seek the basic well-being of the not-super-human City of Pigs that Socrates describes in the early pages of the Republic — health, peace, community, feasts, wine, festivals — but we are more advanced than that, meaning more refined and more degenerate. Despite the essential soundness of, say, Will Wilkinson’s work on quantifying happiness, as any good libertarian knows, a life of ‘mere’ well-being is not a life spent truly exploring one’s personal capacities for self-actualization. Wealth helps get you there, but, as many a bobo can testify, not always, and, past a certain modest point, not necessarily.

The Locke/Nietzsche detour is important because it turns out that we Americans are too democratic to really own up to the social costs incurred by letting a thousand Lockean geniuses or Nietzschean superpeople bloom. We would much rather have a million semi-geniuses and awesomepeople — ten million, a hundred million, and when the inevitable mistake is made, rushing perpetually as we do toward ever-greater prosperity and ever-higher achievement in the prosperity business, we’re simply not interested in paying the price personally on anything like a mass scale.

Enter government. Our huge federal bailouts are better understood as a doubling-down on Americanism than a capitulation in favor of a U.S. of Bavaria.

We’re simply too proud to let our high-risk behavior result in big pain for the average American. There’s nobility in that — despite the blows our critics of optimism land. The sad part is how ignoble our pride in the virtual value of status symbols has become. Don’t get me wrong — there’s nothing necessarily wrong with buying a Lexus for your garage instead of planting an olive tree in your front yard. The trouble is that leisure time, enjoyed without reference to even a vague concept of noble and ignoble, tends to erode interest in higher forms of entertainment — namely, higher forms of education, comportment, and socialization. (What’s happened to Trivial Pursuit over the past quarter-century is as gross a testament to this turn of events, in all three of its forms, as any.)

But there are only a few durable American sources for an ethic of nobility. Aside from our troublesome ‘Lockean-Nietzschean’ inheritance — which, in fact, isn’t an import but home-grown Emersonianism — we have our religious inheritance and our deist inheritance. The religious inheritance is an ethic of the heart. The deist inheritance is an ethic of the head. (Not being a Catholic people, we lack an inheritance — for good or for ill — in which these two are deeply fused and united.) Unfortunately, look around today, and what dominates? On the one hand, forms of spiritual emotivism least concerned with noble comportment; on the other, commitments to education that worship sci-tech proficiency and upward mobility at the miserable expense of philosophy, high culture, high art, and the humanities. The big hearts and big brains that dominate our public spaces are nothing like the big hearts of and big brains of not so long ago. We get Glenn Beck on the one hand and Malcolm Gladwell on the other, with freaks like Richard Florida as their mutant offspring.

Clearly, there are chicken-and-egg issues at work, and nothing I’ve said here breaks terribly new ground. It is true, however, that few voices today are connecting up our economic and political troubles to a broader and deeper failure of the imagination: a failure to imagine the noble, or, more precisely, to reimagine American nobility — in accordance with both our religious and our not-so-religious heritages. We really can expect a warm welcome for Europeanism without it.