Two Nations, Under Mammon

Patrick Deneen uses a book review in the Wall Street Journal as an opportunity to make two haunting points.

First, even though the book in question, Average Is Over by Tyler Cowen, “tells of a coming(?) nation of two economic classes, the meritocratic elite and an increasingly poor,” Kurt Vonnegut and Michael Young made this same observation. In the 1950s.

Aficionados of science fiction know that Kurt Vonnegut predicted this world already in 1952, with the publication of his first novel, Player Piano. There he describes with chilling accuracy this world ever-more coming into view—one divided between a meritocratic class with all the right degrees (even the secretaries will have Ph.D.s in a credential-inflated future) and the “Reeks-and-Wrecks,” who a visiting dignitary from the Middle East insists on calling “Takaru”—”slaves.”

Furthermore, while there are those on the right and left who like to beat their breasts and lament about symptoms they’re particularly concerned about, both wings of the same ugly bird have been contributing to this dichotomy for a very long time.

The fact is that this project was readily discernible to the likes of Vonnegut in 1952 and Michael Young (author of The Rise of the Meritocracy) in 1958, and national and international elites have been busy constructing this world ever since, regardless of political label. The Right laments the decline of “family values” as it supports economic policies that support this arrangement (even as it has garnered votes from those displaced by an increasingly rapacious economy, attracted to its message of traditional values. Notably, many of these voters simply stayed home during the last election, rightly perceiving that neither of the major candidate was in their corner.). The Left laments the income gap, and proposes various forms of social welfare that will cushion the blow, all the while even more enthusiastically constructing the meritocratic society and populating government and leading thinkeries with Ivy League “winners.” These button-down hipsters increasingly accumulate in a select number of urban echo-chambers described most recently by Charles Murray, where they lament the rise of a growing underclass while sipping $7 lattes. These social policies are purportedly to be supported by a tax base of theoretical future citizens that are not being born, a logical outcome of an aggressively expanding and government-subsidized sexual revolution, contracepting, gay marriage, and abortion culture advanced by the very same Left.

Which leads Deneen to his second broader point.

 [I]t has never failed to strike me that it is libertarians (perhaps of a certain stripe) that advance an “inevitability” thesis. Cowen, according to [the book reviewer], argues that “resistance is futile.”

There’s nothing we can do, says Mr. Cowen, to avert a future in which 10% to 15% of Americans enjoy fantastically wealthy and interesting lives while the rest slog along without hope of a better life, tranquilized by free Internet and canned beans.

This is an important observation. Just because we can use certain mental tools to discern trends from the past does not mean we know the future. While there may be a likelihood that a certain stream of events may come to pass, there are far too many variables to say with certainty “this is what is going to happen.”

For example, those of us who have studied Austrian economics are certainly, perhaps gravely, concerned about the effects on the economy (particularly the poor and shrinking middle class) from the Federal Reserve’s attempts to reflate the economy through the creation of new money. We use tools like Austrian Business Cycle Theory to help us think about the effects of this policy. What we don’t know, however, is where this new money will actually go, and when the bust will occur.

Furthermore, we also don’t know about the political effects of more and more people learning about what the Fed is doing. The economy certainly isn’t booming as predicted by the New Keynesians. To what extent does this new awareness have anything to do with it?

While it is certainly worthwhile to be aware of and be concerned about trends within our society, there is the risk that “knowing” the future leads to viewing life as absurd and futile. After all, being uncertain about the future provides for an element, however small, of hope. Those of us who worry about these things sometimes have to remind ourselves that things could actually improve.

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