Europe Syndrome was a fantastic article in the WSJ that reminds me of the best of the conservative intellectual school of thought. However, like many of Charles Murray’s predecessors, he let’s his opinions on individuality and family get the better of his logic, rendering his premise fundamentally wrong. You should still read the article if you’ve got a few minutes because intelligent conservative criticism is rare and consuming it is intellectually rewarding.
This is the paragraph where things go awry:
“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.”
First, the author ties social status with life fulfillment, which is questionable. Then, he says that a man should take deep satisfaction from ‘doing something authentically important with his life’ which he defines in the case of the janitor as ‘supporting a wife and children’. What if the work a man must do to support his family suppresses the man’s soul? What if the burden of having to independently finance a family keeps someone from self-actualizing and loving their work? Shouldn’t we celebrate a system that frees people from menial jobs and wage slavery so that they can self actualize and do what they love to do instead of what the market imposes upon them? (Sure, the system might raise the cost of janitorial services but there is something to be said about cleaning up one’s own mess.)
What the author should have said is this:
Deep satisfaction comes from doing the right thing for one’s self, family and community.
Doing the right thing for one’s self means, I think by definition, self actualizing — it means profoundly loving your work and having your work profoundly love you. We should celebrate when efficient technology and societal organization allows people to free him or herself from a menial job so that they can pursue a more fulfilling career. Instead, Murray laments that the janitor is free to idly and unhappily spent his time doing nothing. It is our culture’s role to make sure people free from menial labor find a fulfilling vocation. That’s where the great awakening Murray discusses would come into play.
Doing what’s right for one’s family certainly involves financially supporting them but the American notion that every family lives in it’s own economic bunker is destructive and makes us forget that accumulating currency is not the only way to support one’s family. Family and community deeply intersect so if a person dedicates their life to supporting their community the community should support that person’s family. Just because the market can’t accurately value participating in the education of children, supporting the sick, assisting the poor and engaging with the democratic processes that keep our communities healthy, free and vigorous does not mean these activities are worthless or that communities can’t value them. Fully participating in community life might leave someone broke but the value they create makes us all more wealthy. This truth manifests itself in Eastern cultures where up to 20% of the population lives as monks who avoid market participation by receiving alms from the communities they serve.
What’s being argued here is this: by allowing some people to rely on the financial support of others to survive we will free some people to become deeply involved with making our communities better and stronger. The East has a vibrant spiritual life because they allow their spiritual members to live outside the influences of the marketplace. We’ve seen in the West how poorly Spirit and money mix.
America was founded as an experiment and we must continue as one. We’ve let ourselves stray from the course of freedom and self-sufficiency structured by our founders and fantasized about by our great economists. We’re stuck in a horrid grey area: inefficient like the European social states without their material equality. I have little doubt that we could transform into a ‘glossy’ European culture but that is not our destiny: in fact it’s a cop out. We can acheive European standards, and greatly exceed them, if we invest in our people and aim for the absolutely free state that ‘perfect market’ economics like Milton Friedman describe.
We need a great awakening sparked by reinvestmenting in non-governmental community strength. Spirituality can only come from freedom and true freedom can only come from spirituality. That is the role of America in the global story: a small government, a large degree of personal freedom and open minds that synergize eastern and western wisdom and knowledge to create a more expansive world view that the whole world can share.