The following note by Chet Richards was extracted from the comments on An important thing to remember as we start a New Year (Chet is Editor of Defense and the National Interest and writes at his blog):
Could you comment on what it is that gives the United States its enormous competitive strength?
Let me throw out an hypothesis: The competitive strength of any organization depends primarily upon its ability to inspire and then harmonize the creativity and initiative of its people in order to accomplish their common goals.
In the United States, the highest-level expression of our common goals is the Constitution. In the United States, the free enterprise system is our mechanism for stoking and harmonizing creativity and initiative. In addition to our legal system, other infrastructure, local market size, and access to capital, the US remains the easiest country in the developed world to start (or stop) a business.
So my hypothesis is that as long as we tend to the health of our constitutional free enterprise system, our future as a prosperous nation is assured.
I agree with this, but the Constitution is not a complete answer to Chet’s question. If the Iraq people voted to adopt the Constitution, would Iraq be on the road to success? Also, we still have the Constitution — so our current ills must have other roots.
There is another amorphous but critical dimension to this. The Founders considered the right “national character” as essential if their project was to succeed. Unlike so many today, they considered social legislation necessary to re-enforce desirable characteristics and guard against adverse developments. For example, marriage was considered a private matter for most societies throughout history. In tyrannies or monarchies it does not matter what family structure the peons adopt. But our Founders considered this an important element of America’s success, as did other observers (e.g., Alexis de Tocqueville).
So, after several posts describing the good news about America, this discussion inevitably turns to our ills. Why do we face so many serious problems at the same time?
Since I have said that we can solve our problems by working together, holding fast to the core beliefs of our forebearers, we can reverse-engineer the cause by asking what prevents us doing so. This series will examine the causes of our ills, in no great detail, with the objective of showing that these are not flaws in our national character, beliefs, or institutions. I believe our problems are just “paper bullets of the brain” — beliefs we have casually, with little thought, adopted as our own — and can as easily abandon. If we but choose to do so.
The articles on this blog are just pointers to greater works which describe the modern world, and more specifically describe modern America. To answer this question I will point to four works which collectively describe, in my opinion, the causes and nature of our current predicament. They deserve to be on everyone’s 2008 reading list. Year-end reading lists tend to list “hot” books, today’s ephemera; but the passage of time has proven the value of these works.
Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville (1835). A fascinating portrait of early America. Reading it today shows how we greatly changed, yet remained so similar. He notes the importance of the family, the central role of women in making it work, our love of abstractions, and (quoting Allan Bloom)
“… the difficulty that a man without family lands or a family tradition for whose continuation he is responsible, will have in avoiding individualism and seeing himself as an integral part of a past and a future, rather than as an anonymous atom in a merely changing environment.”
The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom (1987). America is an experiment in applied philosophy, and our mistakes have their roots in these theories about the nature of men and the best regime. The first half is easy and fun to read, with observations that will strike most readers strongly. The second is more difficult, and more rewarding in understanding about our society. See my discussion about Closing here.
The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations by Christopher Lasch (1991). The cultural aspect of our ills. Very theoretical in parts (too much so for me), but the core message is worth considering. See my discussion about Culture of Narcissism here.
The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy by Christopher Lasch (1995). The political aspect of our ills. A powerful polemic for change. Its hostile reception by both conservatives and liberals suggests that it struck too close to home for their comfortable self-assurance. Such a subtle, complex work defies attempts to summarize it, but this excerpt will do as well as any:
The new elites are in revolt against “Middle America,” as they imagine it, a nation technologically backwards, politically reactionary, repressive in its sexual morality, middlebrow in its tastes, smug and complacent, dull and dowdy. Those who covet membership in the new aristocracy of brains tend to congregate on the coasts, turning their back on the heartland and cultivating ties with the international market in fast-moving money, glamour, fashion, and popular culture. It is a question whether they think of themselves as Americans at all. Patriotism, certainly, does not rank very high in their hierarchy of virtues.
“Multiculturalism,” on the other hand, suits them to perfection, conjuring up the agreeable image of a global bazaar in which exotic cuisines, exotic styles of dress, exotic music, exotic tribal customs can be savored indiscriminately, with no questions asked and no commitments required.
The new elites are at home only in transit, en route to a high-level conference, to the grand opening of a new franchise, to an international film festival, or to an undiscovered resort. Theirs is essentially a tourist’s view of the world — not a perspective likely to encourage a passionate devotion to democracy.
The following posts in this series will describe America’s ills as seen through the “lens” of these books.
- Forecast: Death of the American Constitution (4 July 2006)
- Some good news (one of the more important posts on this blog) (21 December 2007)
- Diagnosing the Eagle, Chapter II — book recommendations for 2008 (31 December 2007) — Three great books, all telling much about 21st America.
- Diagnosing the Eagle, Chapter III — reclaiming the Constitution (3 January 2008) — about Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom.
- Diagnosing the eagle, chapter IV – Alienation (13 January 2008) — about The Culture of Narcissism by Christopher Lasch.