There’s a whole lot of navel gazing going on this week on both sides of the aisle, and it seems to center on an event hosted by the American Enterprise Institute, (AEI) specifically a speech by Charles Murray on “The State of White America.” (Video of the speech is available here.) One portion of his remarks seemed to have dealt with the fact that people are taking longer to grow up and take on the full plate of adult responsibilities than they did in “the good old days.” This was first noted by Adam Serwer.
Murray’s basic conclusion was that something went deeply wrong in the mid-1960s, an idea that caused everyone in the room to nod their heads solemnly. And the basic thing that went wrong was that President Lyndon Johnson’s extension of the American welfare state undermined the essential virtue of the American people by making them soft, weak, and lazy where once they were hard, strong, and industrious. America’s decline can be traced to this moment. Liberals laugh at that old Ronald Reagan speech declaring the end of freedom with the advent of Medicare, but conservatives actually think that on some level, he was right. That’s the kind of moral outlook that’s guiding Ryan’s proposal, which basically abolishes Medicare and Medicaid as we know it while shifting the tax burden to the less well-off.
Hymowitz’s argument, essentially, is that not only has feminism opened up new doors of opportunity to women, but it’s helped contribute to the growth of a society in which young men are less crushed down with family and household obligations and are spending more time enjoying themselves. Except she means this as a bad thing! In both cases the conservative conceit seems to be that a decline in human suffering is a bad thing because it leads to a corresponding decline in admirable anti-suffering effort. John Holbo memorably dubbed this Donner Party Conservatism.
First of all, at the risk of breaking out in a rousing chorus of “you darn kids get off my lawn,” I mostly agree with John Hawkins on this. Too much generalization always courts the risk of falling flat on your face, but there does seem to be a pervasive sentiment among left leaners on this subject. They will frequently make the case that one of the defining characteristics of all strains of conservatism is “a deep, abiding fear that somebody, somewhere may be having a good time.”
But the fact is that times have changed since I was a young man. Back then, men in their early twenties frequently were already busy with a job, mowing the lawn and working on getting a wife if they had not done so already. Going to college was more the exception than the rule, and young men graduating high school frequently went straight into the job market. We married younger, started families sooner, and generally expected to be somewhat “established” in life by the time we reached our early thirties.
Society has undergone a dramatic shift. Life in general is more expensive, particularly since we all have to have so many things which our parents never thought of. You’ve got to have a cell phone, a laptop, a high speed internet connection and 327 channels of cable television. (312 of which you will never watch.) It takes longer to save up the money to position yourself for marriage and two incomes are often required to maintain a modern lifestyle, so children are often put off until later in life.
Is this a war on happiness? It’s a silly concept since, as John points out, studies consistently show that married people are happier than single people, religious people are happier than non-religious people, and conservatives are happier than liberals. But how are we to define happiness? That is best left to the observer, but the ability to spend your days playing games on your X-box and then hitting the clubs until all hours of the night might not be all it’s cracked up to be in terms of long term life satisfaction.