American Exceptionalism versus the Europe Syndrome

Charles Murray is no stranger to controversy… in the 1980s he wrote Losing Ground, an indictment of the welfare programs of the time that some suggest had a big impact on the welfare reform forced on President Clinton by Newt in the 1990s.  Also in the 1990s, Murray wrote The Bell Curve with Herrnstein.  That book was a scientific and politically incorrect look at IQs and I remember conversations with my father, a scientist himself, about Murray’s  controversial conclusions.

In an article at The American, Murray starts off in what seems to be a purely political discussion, arguing against the European Model that has proven so enthralling to many liberal politicians including our new President, and in favor of that phrase that I love and believe in so much: American Exceptionalism.  Although he admits that their systems produce “sclerotic economies”, his main reason for rejecting the European model is that it has a negative impact on the things that make people lead happy lives.  Murray argues not only that this European Model “does not conduce to Aristotelian happiness“, because of several specific impacts of intrusive government on living a meaningful life, but that recent and pending scientific discoveries will support this thesis as the social sciences become more and more shaped by discoveries in neuroscience and genetics.

In his piece, titled The Europe Syndrome and the Challenge to American Exceptionalism, Murray elaborates on the things that have historically made life worth living:

And since happiness is a word that gets thrown around too casually, the phrase I’ll use from now on is “deep satisfactions.” I’m talking about the kinds of things that we look back upon when we reach old age and let us decide that we can be proud of who we have been and what we have done. Or not.

To become a source of deep satisfaction, a human activity has to meet some stringent requirements. It has to have been important (we don’t get deep satisfaction from trivial things). You have to have put a lot of effort into it (hence the cliché “nothing worth having comes easily”). And you have to have been responsible for the consequences.

There aren’t many activities in life that can satisfy those three requirements. Having been a good parent? That qualifies. A good marriage? That qualifies. Having been a good neighbor and good friend to those whose lives intersected with yours? That qualifies. And having been really good at something—good at something that drew the most from your abilities? That qualifies. Let me put it formally: If we ask what are the institutions through which human beings achieve deep satisfactions in life, the answer is that there are just four: family, community, vocation, and faith. Two clarifications: “Community” can embrace people who are scattered geographically. “Vocation” can include avocations or causes.

Put most simply, Murray’s basic argument is that the European model for government takes so much of the “trouble” out of life that the parts of life that end up being fulfilling experiences are simply not there.

Put aside all the sophisticated ways of conceptualizing governmental functions and think of it in this simplistic way: Almost anything that government does in social policy can be characterized as taking some of the trouble out of things. Sometimes, taking the trouble out of things is a good idea. Having an effective police force takes some of the trouble out of walking home safely at night, and I’m glad it does.

The problem is this: Every time the government takes some of the trouble out of performing the functions of family, community, vocation, and faith, it also strips those institutions of some of their vitality—it drains some of the life from them. It’s inevitable. Families are not vital because the day-to-day tasks of raising children and being a good spouse are so much fun, but because the family has responsibility for doing important things that won’t get done unless the family does them. Communities are not vital because it’s so much fun to respond to our neighbors’ needs, but because the community has the responsibility for doing important things that won’t get done unless the community does them. Once that imperative has been met—family and community really do have the action—then an elaborate web of social norms, expectations, rewards, and punishments evolves over time that supports families and communities in performing their functions. When the government says it will take some of the trouble out of doing the things that families and communities evolved to do, it inevitably takes some of the action away from families and communities, and the web frays, and eventually disintegrates.

Murray goes so far as to argue that the result of this disintegrated web is a society where people just want to get by and have fun, defining it as the Europe Syndrome:

What’s happening? Call it the Europe syndrome. Last April I had occasion to speak in Zurich, where I made some of these same points. After the speech, a few of the twenty-something members of the audience approached and said plainly that the phrase “a life well-lived” did not have meaning for them. They were having a great time with their current sex partner and new BMW and the vacation home in Majorca, and saw no voids in their lives that needed filling.

Murray continues to argue that scientific discoveries are pushing the social sciences more and more into the realm of neuroscience and genetics and that the results will make it more difficult for social engineers to make the case for government intrusions designed to level out the unequal results.  I do not share his optimism on that point.

I have oversimplified a lot of what Murray said in support of these ideas; I highly recommend that you read Murray’s entire piece.

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