Growth and Prosperity
The loss of our self-understanding as parts of a whole meant that individuals who achieved material success were able to consider their achievement as fully their own. By contrast, those who happened to be counted among the “lazy and contentious” (Locke’s term) were understood to have failed on through their own fault alone. A society riven by self-congratulation and resentments was a likely outcome of this philosophical, economic and theological transformation…
Growth replaces virtue; material comfort stands in for solidarity.
Patrick Deneen writes a great deal more on this matter of unsustainable growth and the modern philosophy of wealth and individualism. Indeed, he vocalizes much of what I’ve been thinking lately on the subject of economics and how the modern person identifies their own success; how modern communities have become more like clusters of individuals living in proximity with one another than “organisms” in their own right; and how the very modern, liberal philosophy of constant, rapid growth trumps all moral and ethical concerns. Ironically, I think Deneen’s thinking here ties in rather well with Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” though I am only partway through that book so I can’t comment fully, and to some degree with Freddie’s post on individualism and safety nets. Take, for instance, the quotation above. If you’ve read any of “Outliers” perhaps you can see the continuity between individual success and opportunity provided by luck and community.
Deneen envisions a society built around localization and self-government, but not the libertarian vision of an anything-goes society. In other words, not localization to do away with central control and expand liberty, but localization in order to restore community and order. He rightly views unlimited freedom as antithetical to the human condition, and unlimited choice as quite the opposite of liberty. Only in a materialistic society can these sort of beliefs thrive. Growth replaces virtue; material comfort stands in for solidarity.
This is one reason I’m so taken with the new-urbanist movement, which seeks to build walkable communities in almost village like settings, with mixed zoning and attention paid to the aesthetic. In our rush to provide convenience, we’ve created the commute, the fourteen lane highways, the isolated and sterile suburbs, the modern sense of disconnect. We’ve disrupted the communal organism more and more until we barely have a notion left as to what it means to be a neighbor, what it means to be a part of a whole. Even our churches reflect this sentiment of individuality above all things. Some even preach a gospel of wealth.
I doubt any legislation can restore this communal ethic, short of some redirection in our infrastructure – and perhaps in our thoughts on trade policy.
I heard President Obama speaking while listening to NPR this morning, assuring the nation (and the Canadian Prime Minister) that we would make no move toward protectionism. The reason for this being that trade is one of the great pacifiers of the nations, one of the great measures that can be taken to achieve some semblance of world peace. This is true, of course. Trade does create peace. Of course, the two – trade and protectionism – were spoken about as if mutually exclusive. Protectionism, as usual, was uttered like a curse word, something to be feared and avoided no matter the “temptation.” But does one truly preclude the other? Does any act protecting American industry somehow nullify trade altogether? Or does it merely slow down growth on the global scale?
It is interesting to me the fervor with which both parties treat energy independence. The Republicans chant “drill baby drill!” and treat the issue as a matter of national security, which it certainly is to some degree. The Democrats call for more investment in renewable energy sources like wind and sun, and treat the issue as environmental, which it certainly is as well. But underlying both is the reality that energy independence is just another phrase for protectionism. Indeed, it is a reactionary protectionism because it seeks to restore what we once controlled ourselves – the energy industry in America. We have now become vastly dependent on imported energy, just as we have become vastly dependent on imported steel, cars, toys and virtually every other area of industry.
So why is it that we view energy independence in such a favorable light, but industry independence as anathema to our prosperity, or as a trend toward isolationism? Perhaps it is our definition of prosperity itself. Perhaps in our drive to embrace modern notions of individualism, materialism, and liberty we have lost something else more valuable along the way. Perhaps it is also a threat to American hegemony. Like Rome, the American Republic’s prosperity originates from continued expansion. Originally this expansion was territorial, but in the post-World War II period it has become economic expansion, buttressed by military might. The globalist philosophy and the economic theory of free trade are little more than extensions to the old manifest destiny that drove American settlers West.
The prosperity and freedom Americans now enjoy is built on the backs of these expansions, much like the old Roman Empire, whose continued glory was shouldered by fallen Carthage, Gaul, and Egypt. Indeed, though our Empire now is one of markets rather than conquests, the results and effects are similar. We have become spread thin. Much of our perceived gains in individual wealth have proven to be illusory. Our gains in perceived happiness and contentment could be qualified as outright false.
Mark was right to suggest that the alliance between libertarians and conservatives has been one of corruption. I might add that the marriage of modern liberalism to modern conservatism in what has become the conservative movement has been a corrupting influence as well, that it has placed conservatism on the wrong footing, emphasizing above all things the need for individualism and material gain, rather than virtue and social order. And beyond that it has led not only to a culture of economic expansion, but one of military inverventionism under the guise of a “liberating tradition” which in fact is little more than a further expression of our own compulsion to expand.
The end to such military expansionism will not come easy, especially in light of the continued “war on terror”. Such a draw down of expansionary force is as necessary as a return to healthy trade, if not more so, if America is to remain a free and ordered Republic. Andrew Bacevich writes:
This does not imply assuming a posture of isolationism, although neoconservative and neoliberal proponents of the global “war on terror” will be quick to level that charge. Let us spare no effort to track down those who attacked us on 9/11, beginning with Osama bin Laden, still at large more than five years later. But let us give up once and for all any pretensions about an “indispensable nation” summoned to exercise “benign global hegemony” in the midst of a uniquely opportune “unipolar moment.”
Military and economic “growth” continue apace. Americans are told by our leaders that growth will solve our many problems, that our options are limited to free trade or none at all, to expansion or isolation. They give us false choices because they tell us half-truths. Natural deflation, and a return to real prices, is still viewed by the vast bulk of the economic intelligentsia as something to be feared rather than embraced as natural, and even now amidst a bursting bubble all we are told is that growth will solve all our problems, when in reality perhaps growth for its own sake has lead to many of them. Indeed, the natural world and natural order are all swept away in favor of liberty and individualism and even convenience.
Growth replaces virtue; material comfort stands in for solidarity.
Perhaps protecting our industry is not enough to rediscover our dwindling middle class. Perhaps walkable towns and new urbanism will not be enough to rekindle the desire for simple living, thrift, and neighborly virtue. Energy independence may come too late to save the many fragile ecosystems that humankind, though nominally stewards of our planet, have so greedily consumed and destroyed in pursuit of growth. Maybe only hardship will return us to a more natural equilibrium.
Desperate to avoid the consequences of our decision to abandon the hard discipline of freedom attained through self-government, we insist upon our birthright to freedom attained through nature’s conquest and a society of social separation and avoidance of virtue. How long we can continue this self-delusive belief is in question, but one can hazard to guess that it will be until the last possible moment – that is to say, until it is too late.
I hope the good professor is wrong, but I doubt that he is. The question to my mind is who will come to this awakening first? Will it be us, or will it be our children?