November 26th, 2010 // 4:00 am @ Oliver DeMille
The Age of Dependence
We have recently changed as a people, and as a nation. I’m not sure exactly when the change occurred, but we are living in the new reality it has created.
On the one hand, we have always been a nation dedicated to positive change. America was founded by breaking from the old world and establishing a new model of society and governance, and the progressive impulse has guided America ever since.
On the other hand, we have usually defined change in the positive sense, and when progress has come it has always been based on a nation of freethinking citizens and courageous leaders.
Today, in contrast, we have become, to a large extent, a nation of followers. For the past three generations, we have been taught to depend upon experts.
This is a stunning break from the founding and pioneering generations who raised their children to depend upon their own wisdom, initiative and grit.
This dependence on experts is as devastating to freedom and as potentially controlling as totalitarian governments, caste and class systems, and the wealthy withholding education from the masses.
It is an applicational flaw in modernism that is persistently leaching freedom from historically open nations around the world.
In addition to unhealthy dependence on experts, we have been conditioned in the West to think like reductionists—only accepting logical, concrete and proven answers.
This invalidates our “gut” feelings about right and wrong and leaves us more dependent on the accepted authority. It puts the “experts” above the citizens in determining America’s future.
But the biggest problem with our reductionism is that we are Dependent Reductionists: we consider something to be logical and proven when the experts say so.
Ironically, this kind of reductionism is actually the opposite of reductionism; it is, in fact, a personal rejection among citizens of our own logic and common sense and instead an ignorant reliance on the leadership of our “betters” in academia, the media, economics and government.
An Age of Epicurus
Add to this a third major characteristic of modern Americans: we are nearly all epicureans, meaning that we want life to feel good.
We expect childhood, youth, education, health, career, finances, romance, family, entertainment and everything else in life to basically go well for us. Always.
And if this ever fails, we angrily blame the government, our employers, our parents or someone else for not doing their job. If everyone did his part, we now believe, pretty much everything would go well for us; and if we’re not content, comfortable and at ease, someone is surely to blame.
So then, most Americans are now Epicurean Dependent Reductionists: We want the experts to make everything good for us, we instinctively believe that they will, and we expect them to use science, logic, research, planning and whatever else is necessary to ensure that all goes well.
After all, they’re the experts. And government officials are expected to do the most, since they are experts with power.
This is the New America.
Of course, there is more to America than these three characteristics, but the new influence of widespread Dependence, Dependent Reductionism and Epicureanism indicates a different kind of future than most Americans seem to want.
Time magazine chronicled Joe Klein’s visit across America in the fall of 2010. Klein talked to hundreds of regular Americans, asking them questions about America and the world and listening closely to their answers, concerns, thoughts and worries. What he discovered is a good overview of modern America.
He found voters to be more eloquent, unpredictable and candid than the candidates. He wrote: “There was a unanimous sense that Washington was broken beyond repair.”
Americans are also upset with big business, especially big finance.
They feel that Washington is out of touch. For example, the citizens mentioned concerns about China 25 times for each time they mentioned Afghanistan.
Liberals are frustrated with Obama; but surprisingly, conservatives are less angry about Obama and more disappointed.
They wanted him to succeed, to help fix the economy. But they don’t feel he has done much.
The growing nanny state drives them crazy. They hate the stimulus and bailouts, and they are confused about the health care bill.
They wonder why the Obama Administration focused on these things instead of jobs. They just don’t understand why the big things — jobs — are being ignored. This infuriates many Americans, both liberals and conservatives.
Klein called the regular Americans he met, on the whole, “rowdy and proud, ignorant and wise.”
The Lost Cartesian Age
Tocqueville said that Americans in the 1830s were nearly all Cartesians, but noted that most of them didn’t know that the word “Cartesian” means a follower of the philosophy promoted by Descartes.
This philosophy was based on not believing any of the experts, but rather thinking about things independently and reaching your own conclusions.
Indeed, a Cartesian considers himself the only real expert on things that are important to him. She listens closely to the thoughts of others and deeply considers all views, and then arrives at her own conclusions.
And for Americans, as Tocqueville witnessed, individual citizens were the highest “experts” on all things related to government.
In Europe, he wrote, the people loved the great artists. In America few idealized the great artists but nearly all youth and adults participated personally in art — paintings, plays, singing, and so on.
The same applied in politics. Instead of following great political icons or parties, the American electorate was deeply and personally involved in the ongoing issues.
The Americans of the 1830s could easily be called Independent Cartesian Innovators.
They expected life to be full of challenges, and they didn’t want their government or anyone else to solve their problems. They wanted to be adults, to meet their own challenges, to solve their own problems.
They believed that the government had its role, but they wanted the freedoms that could only come by keeping the state limited. Again (and this bears constant repeating in our times), they wanted to live life as adults, facing the challenges of the world and overcoming them on their own or with their families and communities.
If problems arose, they didn’t blame others. They were too busy getting to work on solutions.
When they failed, they suffered. Then they claimed that the lessons they had learned through suffering were worth the failure, even as they intently and optimistically went on to new and better projects.
This attitude led them across the oceans, into the wilderness, to freedom from the Monarchy and the old countries, across the plains, and to the moon itself. Along the way, they began the process of conquering the internal frontiers of slavery, chauvinism, bigotry and racism. They made mistakes, but they refused to give up. They kept trying.
A New Age Ahead?
Today, far too often, we just give up. We wait for the experts to do what needs to be done. And, unfortunately, too frequently the experts and officials want us to do nothing.
They believe in the experts as much as everyone else. They too often see citizens as children to be cared for, not adults to be left alone to deal with their own lives as they see fit.
But when a nation becomes a society of followers instead of leaders and adopts a culture of dependency and complaining instead of citizens who are at least trying, flaws and all, to innovatively make the world truly better, freedom is in danger.
We have reached a point in history when this generation must take a stand. If we want to pass on freedom and prosperity to our children and grandchildren, we need to move toward an attitude of innovation, independent thinking, responsibility, resiliency, and taking personal risk to make the world better.
It is time to stop talking so much about what kind of leaders we want, to give less lip service to what Washington or Wall Street or Hollywood should do, and to act a lot more like citizens who actually deserve freedom.
It is time for all of us in America, once again, to change. And this time the change needs to earn the kind of future we truly want.
The first step is a simple change in attitude from dependent on experts to truly thinking for ourselves and seeing regular citizens (not political or economic professionals) as the real experts on American government, freedom and the future.
Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through leadership education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.