Is Our Civilization a Bubble? Part II

Steve Balch

Editor's note: This article, the second in a two-part series, was originally published by Pajamas Media on April 11, 2011. To see Pajamas Media readers' comments on the original article, click here. Part I is here.

As I wrote in part I of our series, Americans have become bubble-conscious and bubble-shy. A tech bubble in the nineties, a housing bubble in the aughts, and fear of a massive fiscal bubble soon to come have temporally darkened the horizons of the world’s most optimistic people.

Not that bubbles are anything new. Black Friday popped the stock market. Eighteenth century bubbles burst on the Mississippi and in the South Seas. Tulips even made one bloom in Holland. Whenever greed and mania combine, bubbles beckon.

In part I, we mentioned the First Bubble Pathology  — social pressure differentials inside and out lead to an overly universalized sense of trust. The Second Bubble Pathology is this: Too great a distance separating circumference and point of origin leads to historical amnesia. The success of our free civilization in producing wealth and smoothing social frictions has allowed it, despite its attendant weaknesses, to flourish and endure. But in so doing it has moved further and further away from the circumstances out of which it arose. Just as a gap between social pressure within and without risks bursting its protective envelope, so too may the increasing disparity between its period of origination and present state.

Freedom arose in a process of sanguinary struggle, the fact of which, in classroom and public commemoration, our culture once continually reminded us. The politics of medieval and early modern Europe, whose jealous rivalries pitted prince against prince, church against crown, town against lord or neighboring town, estate against estate, and estate against crown, engendered a lively sense of liberties (then understood largely in reference to caste and corporation) to be preserved as necessary, and with little apology, by menace and might. And that necessity was frequent, leaving dividing lines between adversaries etched in blood, yet, simultaneously, creating a rough and ready diffusion of power prefiguring, both causally and conceptually, modern constitutionalism. Survey the history of the Magna Carta, the investiture controversy, the tense and violent politics of a Flemish or North Italian town, and try to conclude otherwise.

The particular line of institutional development that led to modern America wended its early way through more than a few such fraught episodes, allowing little forgetting that the price of liberty, now seen in personal and private property terms, was anything less than eternal vigilance. No such naivety, certainly, was present in the deliberations, or actions, of the Founders, or, for that matter, during the tumult of the republic’s first century or so. Liberty though a natural right wasn’t assumed to be a natural state, but something that required courage and alertness to guard. Debates in Congress over banks, tariffs, expansion, to say nothing of slavery and Reconstruction, bristled with invocations of the right of free men to resist illegitimate power, sometimes punctuated by personal clashes between legislators, bordering or even crossing into violence, when procedural rights and individual honor were thought to be under challenge. Power in the hands of others, and most especially in the hands of government, was deeply distrusted. While this made for an exercise of liberty that could be fierce and disorderly, it preserved, even in parliamentary settings, a muscularity that connected it to the rough circumstances of its birth.

That was then. Today we blanch, or affect to, over the unconscious use of military metaphors in routine political discourse. Men no longer call each other out and rarely go armed, relegating law enforcement to uniformed professionals. Our military has become sexually polymorphous, with manly jocularity a possible career-ender. We agonize about eroding civility, but manage to settle our debates over matters of far wider sweep than any taxes on tea, with little more disturbance than those wrought by peaceful demonstrations and a few exercised words.

In most respects this state of affairs represents an immense social triumph, affording us an existence luxuriantly buffered from the endemic political violence with which humanity has mostly had to live. But, together with the perceived benefits of the welfare state, it has also diminished our fear of power, now commonly looked upon as an instrument of compassion. Representative institutions were originally thought far less a vehicle for ensuring that government did what its citizens bid — it was assumed they could generally take care of themselves — than as a means of keeping it from doing what they feared — interfering with their rights. Government was a necessary evil, more likely, once loosed from its restraints, to be an agent of servitude than redemption.

The rise of the welfare state and of the progressive outlook has turned this understanding on its head. They haven’t led to tyranny. Representative processes, our tradition of civil liberties, a pluralistic culture, and the lubricant of a prosperity of which the Framers never dreamed have thus far preserved most of our personal liberties and political freedoms intact. But it’s worth considering whether there are limits that even a two-hundred-year-old constitutional system crosses only at its peril. The bigger government grows the more difficult it becomes for the best informed citizens, even elected legislators, to monitor its activities and restrain abuses. Politicians armed with powers over agencies like the IRS, the Federal Communications Commission, and the Federal Elections Commission, to which the government has just added vast new authority over health care and financial institutions, can recognize this altered equation. This alarms many, but does it alarm enough? Do we still have that salutary fear of power that the framers would have regarded as the heart of republican virtue? Or does this now seem like something that belongs to a remote, archaic past of no particular interest today? Are we, along with Europe, drifting towards an acceptance of Tocqueville’s soft despotism?

One remedy might lie in an educational system and civic culture insistent on overcoming amnesia: one that transmitted an account of American history respectful of the Framers’ wisdom — helping their past to live once again in the minds of our very different present. But that’s hardly the approach of academic multiculturalism, inclined to equate their singular tradition with that of many other times and places. Perhaps we’re now witnessing a political overreaching that will remind us again of those ancient political lessons America’s Founders never forgot — wealthy white slave owners though many may have been — and even rekindle among educators a strong interest in conveying them. It remains to be seen.

Third Bubble Pathology: The rapid expansion of the bubble leads to the cognitive giddiness of utopian optimism. In the middle of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe recounts how Eliza and her child, escaping from slavery in Kentucky, receive sanctuary in the home of an Ohio state senator. The senator’s wife takes from a drawer and gives Eliza’s baby a gown recently worn by her own dead son. Stowe then steps aside from her narrative to address her female readers — “And oh! mother that reads this, has there never been in your house a drawer, or a closet, the opening of which has been to you like the opening again of a little grave? Ah! happy mother that you are, if it has not been so.” Stowe assumes, rightly for her time, that most American women would have experienced the loss of a child. What is now an unusual, almost insupportable, tragedy was in the 1850s a common one.

When Thomas Jefferson penned the phrase “pursuit of happiness,” it was probably with a certain wryness. He too knew the facts of life, having ten years before buried a beloved sister age twenty-five. Six years afterward he’d see his wife die in childbirth, and five of their six children would predecease him, one stillborn, three dead in early childhood. The family histories of a large number of other prominent figures of our early national period were similarly imbued with loss. Happiness might be pursued, but the course would likely take one through the vale of tears.

We expect a lot better today. Life expectancy pushes toward eighty — now yesterday’s seventy, for most, very much with “teeth,” “eyes,” and “taste,” even artificial knees, hips, and hearts — to say nothing of winter retreats to Florida. Women otherwise barren, conceive in labs, and carry their children in someone else’s womb. Don’t like the sex with which you came into the world? Then change it, at least after a fashion, and look forward to most everyone acknowledging the transformation. Old miracle has become new fact as futurologists promise us even more, including the indefinite prolongation of life and youth. Given the distance we’ve already traversed, these predictions seem credible. What was once reserved for heaven, or some land of Cockayne, has become a subject whose moral implications get seriously debated by ethicists. We now live within a sphere of conceivability so ballooned as to present our third danger: the risk of a society that consumes its substance chasing impossibilities, convinced that its cake can be eaten and re-eaten many times over; a society, for instance, that closes off-shore drilling, eschews nuclear power, yet imagines the machine will never stop.

Immense privilege can be rational where it self-consciously lives off a vast number of the unprivileged. It then knows its limits. But when it’s transformed into a generalized sense of entitlement, shared by many if not all, it risks outrunning the progress it feeds off. Looking for a something-for-nothing attitude heading for a fall? Try British students rioting when expected to pay for their university educations, French workers rioting when asked to work till sixty-two, and, perhaps in time, American pensioners rioting when their public paymasters start to default. In the Third World, disturbance may track the price of bread. But it can be more about cake in Everyman’s Versailles.

The aversion to recognizing differential success that crops up in our schools is another symptom of an every-expectations-can-be-fulfilled outlook, entrenched in this case at a critical cultural location. The preference for group work and non-competitive games, the discomfort with tracking and class honors, the accompanying educator euphemisms meant to hide gaps in ability, the use of the term “differently-abled” to hide the fact of disability itself (or “handi-capable,” to borrow a South Park riff) are all telltale. The vale of tears once taught us that it was wise to underscore the relationship between talent and reward so as to promote maximum effort. In our virtual heaven-on-earth we yearn to deem everyone a winner so as to ice prosperity with a rich coat of self-esteem. This psychological redistribution is a nice luxury, but in less favored lands there are calloused, more driven folk who have escaped its temptation.

And finally there’s the matter of whether a life too well-loved, too buffered, too devoted to self-realization can recognize the recurrent need to cast ease aside and defend itself. “War is not the answer” signs dot the lawns of our university towns — nice thought, but only true if the peaceful control the questions called. Can we still do raw deeds when these are necessary? Are we prepared, as were our fathers and grandfathers, for a mass effort to repay ruthless enemies in kind, even if that means a heavy butcher’s bill? When the chips are down will a life spent in shopping malls and ivy leagues so conduce? One day we may find out.

If there’s a lot of ruin in a nation, there’s likely to be all the more in a great civilization. The vices of our civilization are, after all, mainly the flip side of its resplendent virtues. If it coaxes us to believe that all men share the confidence we have in others; if it makes us to forget how different was the world of its begetting from the one we now occupy; if from time to time it threatens our very grip on sanity, well, that’s only a testament to how comfortable a nest it’s woven round us, how completely it’s delivered us from the immemorial evils of the human condition. And this delivery was no accident. The great miracle of our lives rests on the anomalous triumph of exchange over command, of making over taking that has showered upon us so much wealth and security.

Wealth, and its accompanying technical acumen, is no small thing. It can compensate for a large variety of failings. We might have been more trusting than the Soviet commissars, but in the end we buried them under an avalanche of high tech weaponry, computers, and consumables. If our judgments are sometimes shortsighted, our margins of error now stretch very far. Up till now our failings have proved affordable. As long as our pockets stay deep they may continue to.

One thing we can be sure of, however, is if there is ever a breakdown of the Western social order it won’t be the direct result, as Marx predicted, of an overproduction of goods. Rather, if it comes, it is likely to be the result of a surfeit of innocence, which during the course of the twentieth century has become one of the Western world’s most significant products. Not, of course, innocence as innocence has been traditionally conceived. With crudeness and carnality we’re obviously awash. The innocence that now dogs us is a deeper innocence of human nature, an innocence of the predatory qualities of our species, indeed, an innocence which allows us to tolerate — in all innocence — the impulse-freedom the sexual revolution has brought in tow. It’s the spirit of this particular type of innocence that has been inflating our bubble. An accompanying misunderstanding of humanity’s underlying condition is what threatens to puncture it.

Stephen H. Balch was the founding president and is currently the chairman of the National Association of Scholars, America's largest and most active membership organization of professors and academic administrators.

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