The Change We Can Actually See

So my previous post clearly irked most BIG THINK readers.  They didn't want to address the fact of the birth dearth in the United States, Europe, Japan, and so forth.  Or at least they didn't want to think about the fact that the "graying" or aging of society has troubling implications for the sustainability of even our relatively minimalist entitlement programs. 


To rachet the irk-meter up even more, I'm posting the conclusion of a talk I gave to the honors program of the conservative foundation the Intercollegiate Studies Institute this summer.  The whole thing can be found here.  I'm not going to be so pretentious as to indent material I've borrowed from myself.

Let me remind you once again of the BIG CONFERENCE at Berry College this Thursday and Friday on STUCK WITH VIRTUE AND PUBLIC POLICY. 

The Change We Can Actually See

The progress of American individualism in the past generation has not been toward apathetic contentment (Tocquevillian individualism) but toward the intensification of personal self-obsession (Lockean individualism). People are more detached from others than ever, or less animated by personal love or less moved by thinking of themselves as part of a whole greater than themselves. That means that, in the Lockean sense, we are thinking more personally or individually; we believe that the "bottom line" is keeping the free person alive as long as possible. The result can only be, we now see, the increasing anxiety of individual responsibility. Americans have not been living any Progressive or Marxist dream of having freed themselves from scarcity for unalienated self-fulfillment. And they know, now more than ever, that such a dream can never become real in some postproductive age.

In this respect, the vision of our libertarians (or Lockeans on steroids) turns out to have been, to a point, most realistic. The Marxian idea that the modern techno-conquest of nature could allow people to live unobsessive, and so unalienated, lives was naïve—a naïveté present, for example, in the 1960s version of our Progressivism. Naïve, too, was the idea that government planning could remove worry and anxious planning from individual lives. People are, it turns out, stuck with working. And the demands of productivity actually accelerate as technology progresses. They are also in some ways more future-obsessed than ever.

Free individuals tend to believe that their own deaths are the extinction of being itself, but as Lockeans we are less whiny-existentialist and fatalistic about that than we are powerfully resolved to do what we can to stay around as long as possible. (We can exempt our religious minority of observant believers from this view of who we are, just as we can notice that they are actually the ones who are mitigating our birth dearth with their many babies. It is always possible that there could be a religious solution to the crisis of our time.)

Our libertarians were wrong, however, to think that we could flourish in abundance by understanding ourselves with ever-more-perfect consistency as free and productive individuals progressively untethered by biological direction. It turns out that it is not free individuals but men and women in touch, so to speak, with who they are by nature who have enough babies to secure our productive future and so to pay for our minimalist entitlement programs.

So it also turns out that the hyper-Lockean attempt to detach individual autonomy from birth and death and love is the wrecking ball of the welfare state. The least that can be said is that the free individual has triumphed over the feckless dependent.

Our demographic "crisis" has destroyed the Progressive dream of a schoolmarmish social democracy humanely enveloping us all. The good news is that Tocqueville was wrong to worry that we would slouch into subhuman contentment. The road to serfdom, we see now, will never get to serfdom. The bad news is that to the extent that we understand ourselves as free individuals (and nothing more) we pursue happiness, as Locke himself explains, but hardly ever find it.

The next stage in American progress, we can hope, is that we will discover, or rediscover, the truth that the free or personal being is necessarily a relational being. That would, however, take us a step beyond Locke in thinking about who we really are.

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