With the rise of democratic (heh) socialism in this country we are motivated to ask just how a nation that embodies flourishing free market capitalism can fall sway to such an empirically ridiculous siren song.
We survey history and the globe and find such shining examples of socialism as Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Cuba, North Korea, and the old Soviet Union. None of those beacons of progress or freedom. Wrongly-termed progresssives like Sanders, AOC, and a good number of Dems in Congress believe that socialism is not only effective but the wave of the future. But then, we’ve been hearing that socialism will bring about eventual brotherhood and paradise since, well, since socialism reared its snout. No banana yet or, given the record, any fruit likely to appear.
So, why do some (factoring out schemers for power) bitter losers of life, narrow-minded materialists, and lazy statist sinecurists actually believe it? How can certain people with a straight face extol the virtues of this most absurd of economic theories and why does a sizable minority of the young generation in this country agree with them? Haven’t you wondered in the midst of a roaring Trump economy, and the status of horrible places like Venezuela, how any sane person could reject capitalism and become a socialist?
According to one book, written in 1976 by a then self-described economic socialist but cultural conservative, the answer can be superficially encapsulated in an old aphorism, “The first generation makes the money, the second generation spends the money, the next generation majors in art history.”
Daniel Bell, who later became an economic conservative, writes in “The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism” that the answer is not necessarily economic but cultural. I happen to think, much to the chagrin of many of my associates, that the answers to most of society’s questions are cultural. The Clinton catchphrase “It’s the Economy, Stupid” is a good electoral focus for winning elections. But it doesn’t tell us much after that. However, what a society thinks, what it reads, how it prays, the music it listens to, the television it watches, the films it sees, how it goes to work, and what social mores and values it prizes, go much more to the heart of whether a society will succeed or fail.
To delve into a bit of detail we just have to look around at ourselves and also at the way scions of wealth and power lead their lives. Those of us who work for a living know that if we falter in that mission bad things will happen to us and our families. So we apply the virtues of duty, reliability, and professionalism to our daily lives to insure that doesn’t ensue. Those traits of capitalism, which are good in and of themselves, are hopefully transferred by example to our children, generation to generation and so on. But what if that didn’t happen?
A theory I once proposed, Tarawa Syndrome, explains it in the demographic case of the baby boomers of the 60s protestor variety. If your dad was a Marine at Tarawa in WWII, fighting on that molten rock, he may have promised God that if he just got him off that hellhole in one piece that he would make sure his kids would never have to go through that kind of fiery life and death crucible. So when he came home he went too far and spoiled his kids to the point they became the ratty petulant entitled students of the 1960s campus riots. What dad didn’t get is that crucibles like Tarawa, the depression, Korea, etc., gave his generation the hard-won strength to fashion a prosperous and confident society that could afford to survive the tumult of the dumb brats of the 60s. Those challenges, and the virtues that surmounted them, made Americans more resilient, as in the old “what doesn’t kill you…” line.
Helicopter parents are the modern equivalent, showering their little dears with so much suffocating affection and safety that they cocoon them in a web of naiveté and indolence. In due course 21-year-old toddlers then scream, cry, and need professional mental health counseling when somebody wears a MAGA hat within five hundred feet of their presence.
John Kennedy captured the needed sense of noble struggle well when he said in his inaugural, “Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage…” Sure the guy couldn’t keep it in his trousers, wussed out in Cuba and Berlin, and was a walking pharmaceutical factory while in the White House. But he could damn well read a Ted Sorenson speech.
To bring us back to Bell, he asks: How do you make money? You make it by applying the virtues of capitalism outlined above. What happens after you make the money? The following generation has more leisure time, more options, and generally doesn’t have the hard road to hoe their mom and dads did. And here is where it gets tricky. If you’re not careful the ease of that second generation can kill in following years the values that made them prosperous in the first place, leading the next generation to dissipation and weakness. Sure, we need art historians. I mean, hell, I grew up very middle class and almost studied to become one. But any society that emphasizes earned leisure and constant frivolity to the detriment of the classic virtues is killing itself from within, regardless of its current material condition. The seeds of failure are imbedded in the success. See the contradiction?
Capitalism builds, it achieves, it prospers. Though shorn of the inherent struggle to drive onward, it collapses into mindless materialism where our first role is that of consumer, not builder. But there is a way to have material comfort and keep the faith.
I worked in the 1988 GOP presidential primaries for Jack Kemp, who was a young conservative Congressman from Buffalo, New York. On that same campaign trail was Pete DuPont, also a young conservative and the former governor of Delaware. DuPont’s family was, and is, megawealthy. They have been so for most of the history of this country. Both Kemp and DuPont agreed on almost everything, so Team Kemp enjoyed listening to DuPont’s speeches. In one of them he successfully killed the perception amongst some that he was just a spoiled rich kid.
He told of his graduation from Harvard Law and afterwards his first day at work in the family firm. His father had told him to show up bright and early to begin his rise up the DuPont corporate ladder. So he put on his best J. Press suit, Princeton undergrad tie, and arrived at the appointed hour. He was the boss’s son, so he expected a nice corner office and a dishy secretary. When he got there his dad told him to sit down, his corporate trainer would be there any minute. After several minutes the trainer got there and the young Ivy Leaguer and Navy vet was a bit surprised. It was the janitor.
His dad told him he would start out at the very bottom, just as he and his dad had done, and learn the business from the ground up, thereby earning the respect of the people who might some day work for him. Yes, he had actual privilege. But his dad knew, and he came to understand, something lost on many of the monied class of today: noblesse oblige. And that obligation was not just to any cause of the week or trendy Bolshie intellectual fashion. It was to the traditional virtues of hard work and humility that got the DuPont family where it was over so many years. DuPont worked his way up and made sure his kids did the same.
When we forget those ideas as a nation and as a society, when we rest on our laurels and seek a life and lifestyle bereft of challenge and determination, then the Internal rot is sure to set in. We have seen it for some time in our college faculties, our media, honeycombed through our cultural arbiters. Let us hope the trend is one day arrested. And it can be, if we only have the will.
If not, the continued alternative for America is progressively grim indeed.