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Charles Murray's Miserable, Happy Americans

Charles Murray's recent Irving Kristol lecture at the American Enterprise Institute, titled "The Europe Syndrome and the Challenge to American Exceptionalism," has been extravagantly praised by conservatives. From these accounts, I figured that Murray had something new or interesting or thoughtful to say about the question of American exceptionalism or the problems confronting contemporary Europe.

But no. What Murray offers in his lecture is just a slight variation on good old-fashioned Donner Party Conservatism.

For those unfamiliar with the delightful appellation, coined by blogger John Holbo in 2003, it refers to the brand of conservative thinking that defends America's relatively minimal welfare state and anemic economic regulations on the grounds that it's good for people to have to struggle and suffer to get by -- just like those plucky, entrepreneurial pioneers who resorted to cannibalism to avoid starvation while trapped in the Sierra Nevada mountains back in the winter of 1846-1847. For some Donner Party Conservatives, struggle and suffering are good because they call forth and demand great acts of virtue, which serves to replenish the ever-diminishing stockpile of "moral capital" that our nation has inherited from its (pre-liberal) past. Murray himself argues this point at length. But he also claims that struggle and suffering are good because they are a necessary condition of human happiness.

And that sets up a familiar conservative dichotomy. On one side is Europe, filled with its cushy welfare states, where tame and timid hedonists treat life as a vacation, never contemplating, let alone striving to attain, greatness. They live, but they have no concept of what it means to "live well," meaning to live for the sake of something larger or higher than themselves -- something worth sacrificing for, like children, or dying for, like a noble cause. Hence their plummeting fertility rates and aversion to military conflict.

But that's not all. Because genuine happiness, for Murray, requires spending one's life striving to overcome an endless series of challenges and obstacles, the lavish European safety net ensures that individual Europeans will never experience spiritual contentment or satisfaction. The assumption seems to be that a life of leisure -- or at least a life with open access to health care, quality child care, generous unemployment insurance, and 4 - 6 weeks of guaranteed vacation time a year -- will be an unhappy one. (It doesn't sound half-bad to me, but I'm a Euro-loving liberal.)

Luckily, though, there is the American alternative (at least until Barack Obama gets through with us). Unlike coddled Europeans, Americans face the constant possibility of personal economic catastrophe. They work their lives away just to make ends meet, never knowing if they'll be rewarded for their efforts by being fired by their employer or impoverished by medical bills after a life-threatening illness. And that constant insecurity is what opens up the possibility of genuine happiness for them, because if they manage to survive, let alone thrive, they'll know that they did it on their own, without the help of the state, through heroic acts of self-reliance. This ideology -- equal parts Christian masochism, Emersonian individualism, and Nietzschean striving -- forms the core of American exceptionalism, according to Murray.

Even if we grant that there's some validity to Murray's core psychological assumption -- that human happiness is linked to the sense of self-worth that comes from overcoming obstacles -- Murray's arguments about the preconditions of happiness in Europe and America are riddled with holes.

Let's start with a few simple questions. Does it really make sense to assume that European welfare states so thoroughly insulate individuals from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that they no longer suffer or contend with difficulties in life? Don't individual Germans and Italians and Swedes still endure heartbreak and personal disappointments and defeats? Don't Danes and Frenchmen and Spaniards still struggle with disease and death? And if so, isn't happiness as possible for them as it is for Americans? (Come to think of it, shouldn't Americans be envious that European governments impose so many burdensome regulations on business, since those formidable obstacles to success must increase the likelihood that successful European entrepreneurs will get to enjoy happiness? But I digress. . . .)

On the other hand, isn't it likewise the case that plenty of Americans, very much including the W. H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, enjoy pleasant, leisured lives that are pretty thoroughly insulated from struggle and suffering, at least by the standards that have prevailed for most of human history? Judged by these standards, contemporary Europeans and Americans -- with their abundant food and clothing, iPods and air travel, MRIs and antibiotics -- differ hardly at all. If Europeans are unusually discontented, then it seems Americans should be, too -- at least in comparison with all those happy, struggling peasants of the pre-modern world.   

But those are just the obvious objections to Murray's argument. The more fundamental ones follow from reflecting on the very real economic and cultural differences that distinguish Europe and America. The U.S., for example, has a lot more poor people than most European countries, and the American poor tend to be poorer than their European counterparts, while also lacking access to quality health care, child care, and other forms of social support. At the same time, the gap between the rich and poor in the United States is much greater than it is in Europe.

Libertarian-minded conservatives defend these troubling facts in a number of ways. The most doctrinaire say that the principle of individual freedom should be inviolable, regardless of the inegalitarian consequences. More pragmatic libertarians argue that America's comparatively freer market leads on average to higher rates of growth and lower rates unemployment than Europe, and that these are greater social goods than equality. And then there are those who claim that Americans as a whole benefit in innumerable ways from policies that encourage economic vitality and foster a culture of entrepreneurial creativity. All of these arguments are questionable. But at least they have the virtue of recognizing that economic and social policy involves trade-offs among competing goods.   

By contrast, Donner Party Conservatives like Murray deny that any trade-offs are required -- and that's what makes their ideology so easy, so delusional, and so pernicious. Yes, they say, the American approach to economic and social policy makes life much harder for the poor, but far from being cruel, heartless, or selfish -- or an unfortunate consequence of protecting freedom, fostering growth, or encouraging economic vitality -- the added burden on the poor should actually be viewed as a benefit. After all, if quality health care and child care were more widely available, if public transportation were more reliable and affordable, if schools and other social services were more effective -- if, in a word, our society devoted a bit more of its vast resources to alleviating the struggles of the poor -- then we would be depriving them of the possibility of happiness. How thoughtful and generous of us not to alleviate their suffering!

And who are the most generous of all? Why the conservatives who believe we should spend even less on the poor than we already do! No wonder NRO's The Corner was buzzing with praise for Murray's lecture, which tells the right exactly what it most wants to hear: that doing nothing is the greatest charity of all.

UPDATE: Looks like Murray made the same Donner Party argument in the Washington Post on Sunday. Title: "Thank God America Isn't Like Europe -- Yet."