Peak Civilization?

Here is an oft-quoted observation, spuriously attributed to Socrates, about youth:

The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.

Even though Socrates didn’t say it, the sentiment has nevertheless been stated and restated since 1907, when the observation was concocted, and probably had been shared widely for decades, and even centuries, before that. I use a form of it when I discuss the spoiled children of capitalism (e.g., here).

Is there something to it? No and yes.

No, because rebelliousness and disrespect for elders and old ways seem to be part of the natural processes of physical and mental maturation.

Not all adolescents and young adults are rebellious and disrespectful. But many rebellious and disrespectful adolescents and young adults carry their attitudes with them through life, even if less obviously than in youth, as they climb the ladders of various callings. The callings that seem to be most attractive to the rebellious are the arts (especially the written, visual, thespian, terpsichorial, musical, and cinematic ones), the professoriate, the punditocracy, journalism, and politics.

Which brings me to the yes answer, and to the spoiled children of capitalism. Rebelliousness, though in some persons never entirely outgrown or suppressed by maturity, will more often be outgrown or suppressed in economically tenuous conditions, the challenges of which which almost fully occupied their bodies and minds. (Opinionizers and sophists were accordingly much thinner on the ground in the parlous days of yore.)

However, as economic growth and concomitant technological advances have yielded abundance far beyond the necessities of life for most inhabitants of the Western world, the beneficiaries of that abundance have acquired yet another luxury: the luxury of learning about and believing in systems that, in the abstract, seem to offer vast improvements on current conditions. It is the old adage “Idle hands are the devil’s tools” brought up to date, with “minds” joining “hands” in the devilishness.

Among many bad things that result from such foolishness (e.g., the ascendancy of ideologies that crush liberty and, ironically, economic growth) is the loss of social cohesion. I was reminded of this by Noah Smith’s fatuous article, “The 1950s Are Greatly Overrated“.

Smith is an economist who blogs and writes an opinion column for Bloomberg News. My impression of him is that he is a younger version of Paul Krugman, the former economist who has become a left-wing whiner. The difference between them is that Krugman remembers the 1950s fondly, whereas Smith does not.

I once said this about Krugman’s nostalgia for the 1950s, a decade during which he was a mere child:

[The nostalgia] is probably rooted in golden memories of his childhood in a prosperous community, though he retrospectively supplies an economic justification. The 1950s were (according to him) an age of middle-class dominance before the return of the Robber Barons who had been vanquished by the New Deal. This is zero-sum economics and class warfare on steroids — standard Krugman fare.

Smith, a mere toddler relative to Krugman and a babe in arms relative to me, takes a dim view of the 1950s:

For all the rose-tinted sentimentality, standards of living were markedly lower in the ’50s than they are today, and the system was riddled with vast injustice and inequality.

Women and minorities are less likely to have a wistful view of the ’50s, and with good reason. Segregation was enshrined in law in much of the U.S., and de facto segregation was in force even in Northern cities. Black Americans, crowded into ghettos, were excluded from economic opportunity by pervasive racism, and suffered horrendously. Even at the end of the decade, more than half of black Americans lived below the poverty line:

Women, meanwhile, were forced into a narrow set of occupations, and few had the option of pursuing fulfilling careers. This did not mean, however, that a single male breadwinner was always able to provide for an entire family. About a third of women worked in the ’50s, showing that many families needed a second income even if it defied the gender roles of the day:

For women who didn’t work, keeping house was no picnic. Dishwashers were almost unheard of in the 1950s, few families had a clothes dryer, and fewer than half had a washing machine.

But even beyond the pervasive racism and sexism, the 1950s wasn’t a time of ease and plenty compared to the present day. For example, by the end of the decade, even after all of that robust 1950s growth, the white poverty rate was still 18.1%, more than double that of the mid-1970s:

Nor did those above the poverty line enjoy the material plenty of later decades. Much of the nation’s housing stock in the era was small and cramped. The average floor area of a new single-family home in 1950 was only 983 square feet, just a bit bigger than the average one-bedroom apartment today.

To make matters worse, households were considerably larger in the ’50s, meaning that big families often had to squeeze into those tight living spaces. Those houses also lacked many of the things that make modern homes comfortable and convenient — not just dishwashers and clothes dryers, but air conditioning, color TVs and in many cases washing machines.

And those who did work had to work significantly more hours per year. Those jobs were often difficult and dangerous. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration wasn’t created until 1971. As recently as 1970, the rate of workplace injury was several times higher than now, and that number was undoubtedly even higher in the ’50s. Pining for those good old factory jobs is common among those who have never had to stand next to a blast furnace or work on an unautomated assembly line for eight hours a day.

Outside of work, the environment was in much worse shape than today. There was no Environmental Protection Agency, no Clean Air Act or Clean Water Act, and pollution of both air and water was horrible. The smog in Pittsburgh in the 1950s blotted out the sun. In 1952 the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught fire. Life expectancy at the end of the ’50s was only 70 years, compared to more than 78 today.

So life in the 1950s, though much better than what came before, wasn’t comparable to what Americans enjoyed even two decades later. In that space of time, much changed because of regulations and policies that reduced or outlawed racial and gender discrimination, while a host of government programs lowered poverty rates and cleaned up the environment.

But on top of these policy changes, the nation benefited from rapid economic growth both in the 1950s and in the decades after. Improved production techniques and the invention of new consumer products meant that there was much more wealth to go around by the 1970s than in the 1950s. Strong unions and government programs helped spread that wealth, but growth is what created it.

So the 1950s don’t deserve much of the nostalgia they receive. Though the decade has some lessons for how to make the U.S. economy more equal today with stronger unions and better financial regulation, it wasn’t an era of great equality overall. And though it was a time of huge progress and hope, the point of progress and hope is that things get better later. And by most objective measures they are much better now than they were then.

See? A junior Krugman who sees the same decade as a glass half-empty instead of half-full.

In the end, Smith admits the irrelevance of his irreverence for the 1950s when he says that “the point of progress and hope is that things get better later.” In other words, if there is progress the past will always look inferior to the present. (And, by the same token, the present will always look inferior to the future when it becomes the present.)

I could quibble with some of Smith’s particulars (e.g., racism may be less overt than it was in the 1950s, but it still boils beneath the surface, and isn’t confined to white racism; stronger unions and stifling financial regulations hamper economic growth, which Smith prizes so dearly). But I will instead take issue with his assertion, which precedes the passages quoted above, that “few of those who long for a return to the 1950s would actually want to live in those times.”

It’s not that anyone yearns for a return to the 1950s as it was in all respects, but for a return to the 1950s as it was in some crucial ways:

There is … something to the idea that the years between the end of World War II and the early 1960s were something of a Golden Age…. But it was that way for reasons other than those offered by Krugman [and despite Smith’s demurrer].

Civil society still flourished through churches, clubs, civic associations, bowling leagues, softball teams and many other voluntary organizations that (a) bound people and (b) promulgated and enforced social norms.

Those norms proscribed behavior considered harmful — not just criminal, but harmful to the social fabric (e.g., divorce, unwed motherhood, public cursing and sexuality, overt homosexuality). The norms also prescribed behavior that signaled allegiance to the institutions of civil society (e.g., church attendance, veterans’ organizations) , thereby helping to preserve them and the values that they fostered.

Yes, it was an age of “conformity”, as sneering sophisticates like to say, even as they insist on conformity to reigning leftist dogmas that are destructive of the social fabric. But it was also an age of widespread mutual trust, respect, and forbearance.

Those traits, as I have said many times (e.g., here) are the foundations of liberty, which is a modus vivendi, not a mystical essence. The modus vivendi that arises from the foundations is peaceful, willing coexistence and its concomitant: beneficially cooperative behavior —  liberty, in other words.

The decade and a half after the end of World War II wasn’t an ideal world of utopian imagining. But it approached a realizable ideal. That ideal — for the nation as a whole — has been put beyond reach by the vast, left-wing conspiracy that has subverted almost every aspect of life in America.

What happened was the 1960s — and its long aftermath — which saw the rise of capitalism’s spoiled children (of all ages), who have spat on and shredded the very social norms that in the 1940s and 1950s made the United States of America as united they ever would be. Actual enemies of the nation — communists — were vilified and ostracized, and that’s as it should have been. And people weren’t banned and condemned by “friends”, “followers”, Facebook, Twitter, etc. etc., for the views that they held. Not even on college campuses, on radio and TV shows, in the print media, or in Hollywood moves.

What do the spoiled children have to show for their rejection of social norms — other than economic progress that is actually far less robust than it would have been were it not for the  interventions of their religion-substitute, the omnipotent central government? Well, omnipotent at home and impotent (or drastically weakened) abroad, thanks to rounds of defense cuts and perpetual hand-wringing about what the “world” might think or some militarily inferior opponents might do if the U.S. government were to defend Americans and protect their interests abroad?

The list of the spoiled children’s “accomplishments” is impossibly long to recite here, so I will simply offer a very small sample of things that come readily to mind:

California wildfires caused by misguided environmentalism.

The excremental wasteland that is San Francisco. (And Blue cities, generally.)

Flight from California wildfires, high taxes, excremental streets, and anti-business environment.

The killing of small businesses, especially restaurants, by imbecilic Blue-State minimum wage laws.

The killing of businesses, period, by oppressive Blue-State regulations.

The killing of jobs for people who need them the most, by ditto and ditto.

Bloated pension schemes for Blue-State (and city) employees, which are bankrupting those States (and cities) and penalizing their citizens who aren’t government employees.

The hysteria (and even punishment) that follows from drawing a gun or admitting gun ownership

The idea that men can become women and should be allowed to compete with women in athletic competitions because the men in question have endured some surgery and taken some drugs.

The idea that it doesn’t and shouldn’t matter to anyone that a self-identified “woman” uses women’s rest-rooms where real women and girls became prey for prying eyes and worse.

Mass murder on a Hitlerian-Stalinist scale in the name of a “woman’s right to choose”, when she made that choice by (in almost every case) engaging in consensual sex.

Disrespect for he police and military personnel who keep them safe in their cosseted existences.

Applause for attacks on the same.

Applause for America’s enemies, which the delusional, spoiled children won’t recognize as their enemies until it’s too late.

Longing for impossible utopias (e.g., “true” socialism) because they promise what is actually impossible in the real world — and result in actual dystopias (e.g., the USSR, Cuba, Britain’s National Health Service).

Noah Smith is far too young to remember an America in which such things were almost unthinkable — rather than routine. People then didn’t have any idea how prosperous they would become, or how morally bankrupt and divided.

Every line of human endeavor reaches a peak, from which decline is sure to follow if the things that caused it to peak are mindlessly rejected for the sake of novelty (i.e., rejection of old norms just because they are old). This is nowhere more obvious than in the arts.

It should be equally obvious to anyone who takes an objective look at the present state of American society and is capable of comparing it with American society of the 1940s and 1950s. For all of its faults it was a golden age. Unfortunately, most Americans now living (Noah Smith definitely included) are too young and too fixated on material things to understand what has been lost — irretrievably, I fear.


I was going to append a list of related posts, but the list would be so long that I can only refer you to “Favorite Posts” — especially those listed in the following sections:

I. The Academy, Intellectuals, and the Left
II. Affirmative Action, Race, and Immigration
IV. Conservatism and Other Political Philosophies
V. The Constitution and the Rule of Law
VI. Economics: Principles and Issues
VIII. Infamous Thinkers and Political Correctness
IX. Intelligence and Psychology
X. Justice
XI. Politics, Politicians, and the Consequences of Government
XII. Science, Religion, and Philosophy
XIII. Self-Ownership (abortion, euthanasia, marriage, and other aspects of the human condition)
XIV. War and Peace

2 thoughts on “Peak Civilization?

  1. All good stuff, as usual. One item stands out: “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” Many people don’t have a sufficient number of important things to do, or don’t see what is important to do. The former is exacerbated by machines doing what used to be human work, The latter is the failure to be present for one’s family and neighbors in small but important things which glue us together. Around 40 years ago, I had an experience I remember well. At a gathering for people in the management of hospitals (at the time these were mostly men), one presenter asked for those who had delivered newspapers on a bicycle as a youth to raise their hands. Most did, including me. He then asked for those who had been in the Boy Scouts to raise their hand. Again, most did, including me. I was not long in either activity, and wasn’t an accomplished scout, but something stuck. I ask, what could be wrong with a creed like this: A Scout is: Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty, Brave, Clean, and Reverent.. The Motto: Be Prepared! ? I admit that the ‘obedient’ one is a little difficult to swallow. The person who gets ‘obedience’ must warrant it, I have always felt.

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