August 13th, 2011 // 1:56 pm @ Oliver DeMille
- Following historical cycles and trends, we have recently experienced a significant recession and major unemployment. According to the patterns of history, what is the third major economic challenge which is just ahead? (Learn what it is so you can prepare for it before it comes.)
- Based on the lessons of past generations which faced major economic problems, what are the twelve things every family should do to deal with the economic challenges ahead?
- What are the three major choices which American citizens need to make to overcome our nation’s economic problems and restore economic growth and increased freedom?
- Where did Tocqueville say that the greatness of America lies? (The answer may surprise you.)
- What exactly is a FreedomShift and how is one accomplished?
- What is “the Law of the Vital Few?”
- How is this law drastically changing America today?
- What are the three top problems that are keeping America from fixing its problems right now?
- What are six predictions of the Anti-Federalists from the founding generation that have come true today and are causing major problems in Washington D.C.’s ability to lead the nation?
- Is our society being run by the cultures of our Elementary Schools, High Schools, Colleges & Corporations, Government Officials, or the Adults in our society?
- How can we move back to adult culture, especially in Washington?
- What are the three major groups in the Republican Party, the three major groups in the Democratic Party, and the other major groups running our nation politically?
(We are much more complex than the historical two-party system that dominated during the Cold War, and only those who understand these splits in the parties will know what is really going on in the nation.)
- Who is the new group that is literally running the United States now? (Hint: it’s not the Tea Party, socialists, environmentalists, the religious right, liberals or even conservatives. The answer is surprising and deeply important.)
- What are the nine types of people who run both of the two major political parties?
- How will they impact the election of 2012?
- What should we expect in the upcoming election?
- What are the eight kinds of freedom, and which have we already lost in America?
- Which of the eight are we now losing?
- What does this loss mean directly for your family and the economy?
These challenges can be dealt with positively, but only if we know what is coming in the decade ahead.
For the answers to these questions and more on how “regular” people like you and me have all the power to refresh our liberties, read FreedomShift: 3 Choice to Reclaim America’s Destiny, available in paperback, pdf and Kindle editions. (Audiobook version, read by the author, coming soon!)
Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through leadership education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.
June 22nd, 2011 // 1:13 pm @ Oliver DeMille
A review of Beyond Capitalism and Socialism: A New Statement of an Old Ideal, edited by Tobias J. Lanz
The message of this excellent book, Beyond Capitalism and Socialism, is straightforward and timely: both socialism and capitalism are lacking. But the book goes a step further, offering suggestions for what type of economy and society we should adopt in the twenty-first century:
“There must be a better way. And, of course, there is, and has been for a very long time. It is a society based on small self-sufficient regions, empowered communities, vibrant neighborhoods, gainfully employed families, individual self-satisfactions, decentralized politics, local economies, sustainable organic agriculture, cooperative work, environmental humility, and careful nurturing of the earth.”
The entire book outlines these basic ideals in a realistic and real-world, even anti-utopian, way.
First, it notes that through history humankind has faced on ongoing series of major crises. These are simply the reality of history. Every generation faces challenges, and some are bigger than others. We have enjoyed a period of relative peace and prosperity which is rare in human history. Crises of some kind will come, and at some point they will challenge or end the ability of big government to solve the world’s problems.
Second, the book argues that truly sustainable society depends on something more than dependence on big institutions:
“As James Kunstler puts it in The Long Emergency, when these [inevitable] crises hit, national and supranational economies will disintegrate and ‘the focus of society will have to return to the town or small city and its surrounding agricultural hinterland…’”
“’It will require us to downscale and rescale virtually everything we do and how we do it…’”
“’Anything organized on the large scale, whether it is government or a corporate business enterprise such as Wal-Mart, will wither as the cheap energy props that support bigness fall away.’”
This is an extremely important point. Towns and cities along with families could, and indeed should, at some point become once again the central institutions of human society. As a society, we have given far too little thought to this eventuality.
Third, if any or all of these changes—or others like them—occur, we will see our world drastically altered. Unfortunately, little of our modern schooling, scholarship, career training or leadership preparation is geared in any way to dealing with such a possibility.
“And then, of necessity, the world will reconstruct itself on the lines of a more human-scale, community-based, local-resource-dependent societies…”
I don’t know if this forecast will come as predicted here, but it certainly could. And if it does, we need leaders who are prepared. In fact, even if this prediction doesn’t occur, such an increase of leadership on local levels could only help our society. Even if our major institutions remain big, even global, strong local leadership is vital to success—economically, politically and on a societal level.
A Breakdown of Local Leadership
In fact, it is the breakdown of exactly this kind of local leadership, I believe, which has caused such drastic growth of institutions that are too big and such widespread dependence on these institutions. Any organization that is too big to fail is, put simply, too big. Period. If it is too big to fail, its failure is a major threat—because all man-made institutions eventually fail. Most do so earlier rather than later.
The authors of Beyond Capitalism and Socialism get it right that the answer to our major current problems are rooted in our citizens and community, and that until we build strong local foundations across society we can only expect to witness further economic decay. They are also correct that neither capitalism nor socialism hold the answers, that a return to true free enterprise is essential, and that we must get started in this process rather than wait for some crisis to force such changes.
At times the authors get caught up in denominational debates from the Catholic perspective, but this tends to deepen the benefit of the book rather than detract. Readers do not have to buy into any religious themes to learn from the numerous commentaries on the potential of free enterprise society.
The book is invaluable reading for American, and all freedom-loving, citizens. As one of the authors wrote:
“Given a society, in which men, or the vast majority of men, owned property and were secure in their income, the myriad interactions of free men making empowered choices really would balance supply and demand. We would be astonished at the variety, the non-servility, and the creativity of our neighbors.”
I am convinced that this is both true and, especially in our modern world, profound. Still, I found the book lacking in one major detail. I prefer the term “free enterprise” to “Distributive,” first because I think it more accurately describes the philosophy for which it stands and second because I’m not convinced that free enterprise and distributism are precisely the same thing. They share many ideals, it is true, but there are differences.
For example, both free enterprise and distributism agree that:
- neither capitalism nor socialism is the ideal
- capitalism, in which those with wealth are treated differently by the law than those without wealth and the level of one’s wealth determines which laws pertain to each person, is flawed
- socialism, in which the government owns the major means of production and levels incomes and work assignments in an attempt to create long-term equity between all citizens and where one’s status is determined by one’s government position, is flawed
- the local society, economy and government is more important than the state- or national-level economy and government and should be treated as such
- families are the central institution of society, and they are more important than markets or governments; markets and governments exist to help families, not vice versa
- money is an important consideration in making choices for family, career, business and society, but it is less of a priority than relationships, spirituality and morality
- we have reached a point in the modern world where our societal dependence on big institutions—both government and corporate—is a serious weakness in our culture and causes much that is negative in our world
- a return to society that is more ideal, more locally-oriented, and citizens that are more independent and entrepreneurial is overdue. In such a society, most families would own their own businesses rather than remaining dependent on government or corporations for their jobs and livelihoods
Free Enterprise and Distributism
The big difference between free enterprise and distributive thought hinges on how we should move toward such a society. Dale Ahlquist, one of the authors in Beyond Capitalism and Socialism, suggested the following:
“The dilemma of Distributism is the dilemma of freedom itself. Distributism cannot be done to the people, but only by the people. It is not a system that can be imposed from above; it can only spring up from below….If it happens, it seems most likely that it would be ushered in by a popular revolution. In any case, it must be popular. It would at some point require those with massive and inordinate wealth to give it up.”
The desire for popular support is normal for all political groups, but the idea that Distributism “would at some point require those with massive and inordinate wealth to give it up” is alarming at best. Why would the wealthy have to “give it up?” Why is that necessary in free society? The word “required” is the problem. Fortunately, Ahlquist clarifies that this would be voluntary, so it isn’t Marxist, but it still makes me wonder, Why?
Nor is this the isolated view of just one author. Here is how another of the authors put it (and for this author voluntarism is replaced by government force):
“For instance, if I own one or several stores (say pizza restaurants) I would have a reasonable and normal rate of taxation, but as soon as I begin to assemble a chain of such businesses, then my rate of taxation would rise so sharply that no one of a normal disposition would seek to continue to own such a chain….A similar scheme of taxation would attack ‘multiple shops,’ that is, stores selling many lines of goods, such as a mega or ‘box’ stores, and stores with ‘large retail power.’”
Again, the obvious question is, why? The answer is that no big institutions can be allowed, that everything must by force remain small. This makes the same mistake as Marx, who taught that government would take from the rich and redistribute equally to all. The mistake was to think that those running the government wouldn’t keep a little (or a lot) extra for themselves and their families. In the Distributive ideal, where no institution can be allowed to be too big, the clear flaw is that any institution powerful enough to keep all the others small will have to be, well, big.
That means big government. The Distributists would presumably want the government to be local, but strong enough to keep all the other institutions small. The American founders already dealt with this and wrote about it extensively in the Federalist Papers. Madison, for example, said that nearly all of the colonies in the late 1780s suffered from local governments that were too dominant—they nearly all had corrupt and anti-freedom practices. This was one of the strongest arguments in support of the U.S. Constitution: a central entity would help reduce oppressive, intrusive and unfair governing fads which always arise in small (and therefore inbred) governments.
Clearly government has become much too big today, but a return to locales dominated by a few powerful families that ignore the needs of the rest of the people is not the answer—though it is precisely what would happen to most local governments if left to themselves. History is clear on this point.
We certainly need more local leadership, independence and a lot more entrepreneurialism and real ownership. We need good local government to make it work, and ideally a federation of local governments to maintain real freedom.
Is Taxation the Answer?
But back to the main point: Why would we want to use government taxation to keep any business from growing? If it offers a good product at a good price and people prefer its offering to those of other businesses, why should we drastically increase its taxes so that it remains small? Is smallness the central point? If so, this is the reason I prefer free enterprise. One more quote will suffice to further my point:
“Of course, a suitable period of time would be necessary to complete an orderly sell-off of property from excessively large owners to small owners before the new tax system came into full effect. Moreover, if this is instituted at a very reasonable pace, with tax rates on concentrations of property increasing gradually each year, this would give owners more time to prepare and help prevent a ‘firesale’ of their property. Similarly some form of guaranteed loans would have to exist to allow those without property or money to purchase the excess property that was being sold.”
My first thought when I read this was, “Who gets to determine what ‘excess’ means in such a society? Whoever it is, they’ll eventually keep more of the money and power than everyone else.” This one flaw in how the book describes Distributism is a serious problem. It proposes stopping one capitalist from getting too much wealth and power, but it doesn’t seem to realize that it also proposes taking the “excess” money from the capitalist and giving it to the socialist.
In contrast, free enterprise takes a different route. It establishes good laws that treat the rich, middle and poor the same. Period. That is freedom.
Is the U.S. a Free-Enterprise Economy?
Some people may believe that this is the system we live under in the United States today. Such an assumption is incorrect. The U.S. commercial code has numerous laws which are written specifically to treat people differently based on their wealth.
For example, it is illegal for those with less than a certain amount of wealth to be offered many of the best investment opportunities. Only those with a high net worth (the amount is set by law) are able to invest in such offerings. This naturally benefits the wealthy to the detriment of wage earners. This system is called capitalism, and it is a bad system—better than socialism or communism, to be sure, but not nearly as good as free enterprise.
In a free enterprise system, the law would allow all people to take part in any investments. The law would be the same for all. If this seems abstract, try starting a business in your local area. In fact, start two. Let the local zoning commissions, city council and other regulating agencies know that you are starting a business, that it will employ you and two employees, and then keep track of what fees you must pay and how many hoops you must jump through. Have your agent announce to the same agencies that a separate company, a big corporation, is bringing in a large enterprise that will employ 4,000 people—all of whom will pay taxes to the local area and bring growth and prestige.
Then simply sit back and watch how the two businesses are treated. In most places in the United States, one will face an amazing amount of red tape, meetings, filings and obstacles—the other will likely be courted and given waivers, benefits and publicity. Add up the cost to government of each, and two things will likely surprise you: 1) how much you will have to spend to set up a small business, and 2) how much the government will be willing to spend to court the large business.
This is the natural model in a capitalist system. Capital gets special benefits. Apparently, in contrast, in Distributist society the small business would pay little and the big business would have to pay a lot more. Under socialism, neither business would be established at all—at least not by you. A government official would do it all, or not do it.
In free enterprise, the costs and obstacles would be identical for the two businesses. In free enterprise, the operative words are “free” and “enterprise.”
Some Distributists seem to share the socialist misconception that unless government forces smallness, every business owner will push to become too big. Wendell Berry, a favorite writer of mine, often took the same tone. In reality, however, the evidence is clear that American business and ownership stayed mostly small—with most people owning family farms or small businesses—until the 1960s. It was government debt which wiped out the farming culture that dominated the South and Midwest, and the rise of big corporations over family-owned businesses came after the U.S. commercial code was changed by law to a capitalist rather than a free-enterprise model.
Give Freedom a Try
Instead of using government to force businesses to remain small, let’s consider giving freedom a try. It has worked for us in the past. If we altered the laws at all levels so that government entities treated all businesses and citizens the same, regardless of their level of capital in the bank, the natural result would be the spread of more small businesses. Freedom, not government control, is the answer.
With all that said, I’m convinced that at least some, maybe many or most, of Distributists in general and the contributing authors to Beyond Capitalism and Socialism specifically would agree with this point, that in fact their view of Distributism coincides with free enterprise. For example, Ahlquist’s chapter appears entirely supportive of free enterprise.
Still, I am concerned by this one thread of thought among some of the authors that seems to see government as the way to keep business from growing. Free enterprise gives no special benefits to big business like capitalism does, but it also does not force businesses to remain small. If this is the view of most Distributists, I agree with them. Even if we disagree on this point (and I’m not certain that we do), I find much to praise in this excellent book.
Beyond this one concern, I can’t say enough positive about Beyond Capitalism and Socialism. It is greatly needed by our citizens today. Everyone should read it and ponder its application to our current world. Consider the following thoughts from this thought-provoking book:
“Home and family are the normal things. Trade and politics are necessary but minor things that have been emphasized out of all proportion.” –Dale Ahlquist
“What then is Distributism? It is that economic system or arrangement in which the ownership of productive private property, as much as possible, is widespread in a nation or society. In other words, in a Distributist society most…would own small farms or workshops…” –Thomas Storck
“As Political Economy is the child of Domestic Economy, all laws that weaken the home weaken the nation.” –Joseph McNabb
“The family, not the individual, is the unit of the nation.” –Joseph McNabb
“We don’t want to work hard. We don’t want to think hard. We want other people to do both our work and our thinking for us. We call in the specialists. And we call this state of utter dependency ‘freedom.’ We think we are free simply because we seem free to move about.” –Dale Ahlquist
“The conservatives and liberals have successfully reduced meaningful debate to name-calling. We use catchwords as a substitute for thinking. We know things only by their labels, and we have ‘not only no comprehension but no curiosity touching their substance or what they are made of.’” –Dale Ahlquist
“The real purpose of traveling is to return. The true destination of every journey is home.” –Dale Ahlquist
“[T]oday here in the United States of America, and in all industrialized countries…there is a class of men and women, perhaps the majority, that…is unfree….I mean, all those who subsist on a wage, the price paid for the commodity they have and who have no other means of maintenance for themselves and their families. I mean…all those who subsist on a wage that is paid to them by those who are, in actuality, their masters; a wage that may be withdrawn at any time and for any reason, leaving them on the dole, or to starve, if they can find no new job…These are not free men in any rational and exact sense of the word.” –Ralph Adams Cram
“Every man should have his own piece of property, a place to build his own home, to raise his family, to do all the important things from birth to death: eating, singing, celebrating, reading, writing, arguing, story-telling, laughing, crying, praying. The home is above all a sanctuary of creativity. Creativity is our most Godlike quality. We not only make things, we make things in our own image. The family is one of those things. But so is the picture on the wall and the rug on the floor. The home is the place of complete freedom, where we may have a picnic on the roof and even drink directly from the milk carton.” –Dale Ahlquist
“The word ‘property’ has to do with what is proper. It also has to do with what is proportional. Balance has to do with harmony. Harmony has to do with beauty….The word ‘economy’ and the word ‘economics’ are based on the Greek word for house, which is oikos. The word ‘economy’ as we know it, however, has drifted completely away from that meaning. Instead of house, it has come to mean everything outside of the house. The home is the place where the important things happen. The economy is the place where the most unimportant things happen.” –Dale Ahlquist
“Caveat lector! For there is little resemblance indeed of the real ownership of real property…to the ‘rent-from-the-bank’ home ‘ownership’ (sic) of most American families.” –John Sharpe
“Our separation of economy from the house is part of a long fragmentation process….Capitalism has separated men from the home. Socialism has separated education from the home….The news and entertainment industry has separated originality and creativity from the home, rendering us into passive and malleable customers rather than active citizens.” –Dale Ahlquist
“In the age of specialization we tend to grasp only small and narrow ideas. We don’t even want to discuss a true Theory of Everything, unless it is invented by a specialist and addresses only that specialist’s ‘everything.’” –Dale Ahlquist
“In material things there can be no individual security without individual property. The independent farmer is secure. He cannot be sacked. He cannot be evicted. He cannot be bullied by landlord or employer. What he produces is his own: the means of production are his own. Similarly the independent craftsman is secure, and the independent shopkeeper.
No agreements, no laws, no mechanism of commerce, trade, or State, can give the security which ownership affords. A nation of peasants and craftsmen whose wealth is in their tools and ski and materials can laugh at employers, money merchants, and politicians. It is a nation free and fearless. The wage-earner, however sound and skilful his work, is at the mercy of the usurers who own that by which he lives.
Moreover, by his very subjection he is shut out from that training and experience which alone can fit him to be a responsible citizen. His servile condition calls for little discretion, caution, judgment, or knowledge of mankind. The so-called ‘failure of democracy’ is but the recognition of the fact that a nation of employees cannot govern itself.” –John Sharpe
Whether you agree or disagree with the details, this book is a treasure of great ideas to consider, discuss, ponder and think about. We need this book today, and we need a society that has read it and deeply contemplated its numerous profound concepts.
Whether or not the ideas in Beyond Capitalism and Socialism become necessary to all of us through some major crisis ahead, a national consideration of these topics is long overdue. We do need to move beyond capitalism and socialism. We need a rebirth of free enterprise, for our nation, economy, freedom, prosperity and above all, for our families and communities.
Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through leadership education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.
June 18th, 2011 // 11:16 am @ Oliver DeMille
A review of The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution by Francis Fukuyama
Francis Fukuyama’s recent book is an excellent commentary on the history of politics and the underpinnings of our current political systems. Readers may find things to disagree with in a book that covers so many periods of history, but this well-researched work sparks a lot of deep thinking about important and timely topics.
Three Major Advancements
Ultimately, Fukuyama sees the development of political society from tribal through modern times as the result of three major advancements. The future, he suggests, belongs to societies that maintain and effectively institutionalize all three of these organizational advantages. This view flies in the face of some widespread views, but Fukuyama’s arguments are compelling.
Consider, for example, the following likely characteristics of the decades immediately ahead:
1. The invention of centralized governments which allowed societies to grow beyond families and small tribes
The industrial age created an expectation (especially in the British and American worlds) of “sustained intensive economic growth.” Today we feel entitled to unending economic expansion. Any downturn in the economy is seen as a reason to blame our political leaders. We seem to believe that a high level of consistent economic growth is our birthright.
This is a significant development. Never has a generation in the past held such expectations. No longer are citizens content with the up-and-down economic cycle that has characterized all of history. Whether this new expectation can be maintained remains to be seen, but this is our expectation now, and we’ll continue to punish any government official who doesn’t both promise and deliver sustained economic growth.
If it turns out that constant growth is unrealistic, that there really is a natural economic cycle of ups and downs, we’ll consistently elect and then dump every politician from every party—the voters will never be satisfied. With such feelings of entitlement, we’re destined to be perpetually angry at and disappointed with our government.
Globalization has created a world of independent international elites and locally-dependent middle and lower classes.
“In the days when most wealth was held in the form of land, states could exercise leverage on wealthy elites; today, that wealth can easily flee to offshore bank accounts.”
2. The establishment of “uniform laws that apply to all citizens
This is a world-altering event in human history. The advent of widespread human freedom and prosperity came as a result of uniform laws that applied to all citizens—regardless of status, wealth, race, gender, ability or religion. Globalization trumps all this, allowing a global upper class to operate largely above the law while the masses are required to follow the laws of their local nations.
The economic benefit of being in the upper class under such an arrangement is huge—the gap between rich and poor will drastically increase as this reality grows.
Hardin Tibbs wrote:
“The proportion of people in cities is growing rapidly, and the numbers of people left in the countryside are falling. The sprawling urban megacity—somewhere like Sao Paulo, where you’ve got densely populated shantytowns right next to the enclaves of the super-rich—is a growing phenomenon around the world.” (EnlightenNext, Issue 47, 2011, pp 29-41)
3. The creation of governments which are “accountable to their constituents
Two groups will be the winners in the new system: mostly the mobile global upper class, and secondarily the masses in nations where the government is truly accountable to the people. This will impact nations around the globe, as we are already witnessing in the Arabic world.
For China, this is either good news or really bad news. If China’s government remains unaccountable to the people, its economic and military strength will at some point become a weakness. If, on the other hand, the Chinese government reforms and becomes accountable to the people, China may well become the great superpower many have predicted.
According to Fukuyama, the centralized structure of an authoritarian system can seem to “run rings around a liberal democratic one” for a time, because the leaders face little opposition from checks, balances, or other obstacles to their decisions. But this is a frailty if ever the leaders make bad decisions.
A few bad leaders or choices can bring down such a system very quickly. Societies with effective checks and balances on the centers of power are more resilient and less prone to huge decline in a single generation or even decade.
As for the United States and Europe, they must reverse the decades-old trend of centralizing power away from the people.
In short, we are seeing the rise of a global class system with increasing divisions between the haves and the have-nots. Major characteristics of this new reality include the unrealistic expectation of constant economic growth, a global upper class that is increasingly above the laws of nations, the growth of drastically divided cities, and governments that are widely controlled by the wealthy.
One great battle of the 21st Century will likely be about who controls government, the wealthy class or the people as a whole. As Fukuyama shows, through history the nations where government was accountable to the people ultimately achieved the most social success, freedom and prosperity.
The Origins of Political Order is the first of a two-volume set, and hopefully the second volume will tell us more about how the people can win this coming battle.
As the mathematical cosmologist Brian Swimme wrote: “the universe is not a place, it’s a story…” (EnlightenNext, Issue 47, 2011, pp. 52-63) The same can be said of the 21st Century, and our story will likely hinge on whether government is ultimately accountable to the people or to a small group of elites.
This is an old battle, but this is the first time it is global in scale. The challenges are thus increased and the stakes are high.
Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through leadership education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.
April 20th, 2011 // 7:31 am @ Oliver DeMille
A review of the book The Social Animal: A Story of Love, Character and Achievement by David Brooks
There are at least three major types of writing. The first might be called Shakespeare’s method, which includes the telling of stories with deep symbolic and archetypal lessons. Many of the great world religious texts used this approach. The Greeks referred to this as poetry, though the meaning of “poetry” is much more limited in modern usage. In the contemporary world we often call this type of writing fiction, though this is a misnomer since the stories used are not actually untrue—they are, many of them, literally true, and nearly all of them are symbolically true. This could also be called the Inspirational style of writing.
A second kind of writing can be summarized as Tocqueville’s method, or the philosopher’s style. Called prose, non-fiction, or editorializing, this type of literature consists of the author sharing her views, thoughts, questions, analyses and conclusions. Writers in this style see no need to document or prove their points, but they do make a case for their ideas. This way of writing gave the world many of the great classics of human history—in many fields of thought spanning the arts, sciences, humanities and practical domains. This writing is Authoritative in style, meaning that the author is interested mostly in ideas (rather than proof or credibility) and writes as her own authority on what she is thinking.
The third sort of writing, what I’ll call Einstein’s method, attempts to prove its conclusions using professional language and appealing to reason, experts or other authority. Most scientific works, textbooks, and research-based books on a host of topics apply this method. The basis of such writing is to clearly show the reader the sources of assumptions, the progress of the author’s thinking, and the basis behind each conclusion. Following the scientific method, this modern “Objective” style of writing emphasizes the credibility of the conclusions—based on the duplicable nature of the research and the rigorous analysis and deduction. There are few leaps of logic in this kind of prose.
Each type of writing has its masters, and all offer valuable contributions to the great works of human literature. This is so obvious that it hardly needs to be said, but we live in a world where the third, Objective, style of writing is the norm and anything else is often considered inferior. Such a conclusion, ironically, is not a scientifically proven fact. Indeed, how can science prove that anything open to individual preference and taste is truly “best?” For example, such greats as Churchill, Solzhenitsyn and Allan Bloom (author of The Closing of the American Mind) have shown that “Tocqueville’s” style is still of great value in modern times—as do daily op eds in our leading newspapers and blogs. Likewise, our greatest plays, movies and television programs demonstrate that the Shakespearean method still has great power in our world.
That said, David Brooks’ new book The Social Animal: A Story of Love, Character and Achievement manages to combine all three styles in one truly moving work. I have long considered Brooks one of my favorite authors. I assigned his book Bobos in Paradaise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There as an undergraduate and graduate college text for several years, and I have recommended his book On Paradise Drive to many students and executives who wanted to understand American and modern culture. In one of the best descriptions of our society ever written, he outlined the new realities experienced by the “average” American citizen, who he called “Patio Man.” I have also enjoyed many of his editorials in The New York Times—and the ongoing, albeit unofficial and indirect, “debate” between his columns and those of Thomas L. Friedman, Paul Krugman, George Will and, occasionally, Peggy Noonan.
The Social Animal is, in my opinion, his best work to date. In fact, it is downright brilliant. I am not suggesting that it approaches Shakespeare, of course. But who does? Still, the stories in The Social Animal flow like Isaac Asimov meets Ayn Rand. It doesn’t boast deep scientific technical writing, as Brooks himself notes. Indeed, Brooks doesn’t even attempt to produce a great Shakespearean or scientific classic. But he does effectively weave the three great styles of writing together, and in the realm of philosophical writing this book is similar to Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. The content of the book, in fact, is as close as we may ever see to a 21st century update to Tocqeville (1830s) and Bryce (1910s).
I know this is high praise, and in our modern era with its love of objective analysis, such strong language is suspect in “educated” circles. But my words are not hyperbole. This is an important book. It is one of the most important books we’ve seen in years—probably since Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World or Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind. This book is in the same class as Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations, Strauss and Howe’s The Fourth Turning, or Philip Bobbitt’s The Shield of Achilles. It is as significant as any article in Foreign Affairs since Richard Gardner’s writings. It reads like Steven Pinker channelling Alexis de Tocqueville. The language is, well, beautiful, but beautiful in the modern sense, like the writings of Laura Munson or Sandra Tsing Loh.
The book also manages to bridge political views—I think liberals will find it moving and conservatives will find it convincing. It is not exactly Centrist, but neither is it patently Right nor Left. It will appeal to independents and people from all political perspectives. If it has a political leaning, it is the party of Common Sense—backed by meticulous research.
Moreover, The Social Animal clouds typical publishing stereotypes. I’m not sure where big bookstores will shelve it. It is a book on culture, politics, education, and career. It is a book about entertainment, marriage and language. It is about the upper, middle and lower classes in modern American society, how they interrelate and what challenges are ahead as they clash. It is about current events and future challenges. It is, above all, a book about success. It goes well beyond books on Habits or The Secret or even “Acres of Diamonds.”
As Brooks himself put it:
“Over the centuries, zillions of books have been written about how to succeed. But these tales are usually told on the surface level of life. They describe the colleges people get into, the professional skills they acquire, the conscious decisions they make, and the tips and techniques they adopt to build connections and get ahead. These books often focus on an outer definition of success, having to do with IQ, wealth, prestige, and worldly accomplishments.
“This story [The Social Animal] is told one level down. This success story emphasizes the role of the inner mind—the unconscious realm of emotions, intuitions, biases, longings….
“…we are not primarily the products of our conscious thinking. We are primarily the products of thinking that happens below the level of awareness.”
“The research being done today reminds us of the relative importance of emotion over pure reason, social connections over individual choice, character over IQ, emergent, organic systems over linear, mechanistic ones, and the idea that we have multiple selves over the idea that we have a single self.”
The book deals with such intriguing topics as:
- Modern dating and courtship
- Today’s marriages and what makes them succeed—or not
- The scientific versus popular views of child development
- Cultural trends such as global-warming awareness assemblies in high schools
- The scientific foundations of violence
- The kind of decision-making that leads to success versus mediocrity and failure
- A veritable manual for success in college
- The powerful leadership techniques of priming, anchoring, framing, limerance, fractals, metis and multiparadigm teams, among others (it is worth reading the book just for this)
- How to “ace” job interviews
- The new phases of life progression
- Effectively starting a new business—the steps, techniques, values and needed character traits
- Leadership in the modern corporation
- How to win a revolution by only making a call for small reforms
- The effectiveness of a talent for oversimplification
- The supreme power of a life’s viewpoint
The Social Animal struck a personal note with me because it brilliantly describes the true process of great mentoring that more of our teachers need to adopt and that I wrote about with Tiffany Earl in our book The Student Whisperer. I have seldom seen truly great teaching described better.
This book is primarily about success—specifically success in our complex modern world—but at a deeper level it is about happiness. Brooks writes:
We still have admissions committees that judge people by IQ measures and not by practical literacy. We still have academic fields that often treat human beings as rational utility-maximizing individuals. Modern society has created a giant apparatus for the cultivation of the hard skills, while failing to develop the moral and emotional faculties down below. Children are coached on how to jump through a thousand scholastic hoops. Yet by far the most important decisions they will make are about whom to marry and whom to befriend, what to love and what to despise, and how to control impulses. On these matters, they are almost entirely on their own. We are good at talking about material incentives, but bad about talking about emotions and intuitions. We are good at teaching technical skills, but when it comes to the most important things, like character, we have almost nothing to say.
The book, like any true “classic” (and I am convinced this will be one), is deep and broad. It includes such gems as:
- “The food at their lunch was terrible, but the meal was wonderous.”
- “For example, six-month-old babies can spot the different facial features of different monkeys, even though, to adults, they all look the same.”
- In his high school, “…life was dominated by a universal struggle for admiration.”
- “The students divided into the inevitable cliques, and each clique had its own individual pattern of behavior.”
- “Fear of exclusion was his primary source of anxiety.”
- “Erica decided that in these neighborhoods you could never show weakness. You could never back down or compromise.”
- “In middle class country, children were raised to go to college. In poverty country they were not.”
- Jim Collins “…found that many of the best CEOs were not flamboyant visionaries. They were humble, self-effacing, diligent, and resolute souls who found one thing they were really good at and did it over and over again. They did not spend a lot of time on internal motivational campaigns. They demanded discipline and efficiency.”
- “Then a quiet voice could be heard from the other end of the table. ‘Leave her alone.’ It was her mother. The picnic table went silent.”
- “Erica resolved that she would always try to stand at the junction between two mental spaces. In organizations, she would try to stand at the junction of two departments, or fill in the gaps between departments.”
- “School asks students to be good at a range of subjects, but life asks people to find one passion that they will do forever.”
- “His missions had been clearly marked: get good grades, make the starting team, make adults happy. Ms. Taylor had introduced a new wrinkle into his life—a love of big ideas.”
- “…if Steve Jobs had come out with an iWife, they would have been married on launch day.”
- “Epistemological modesty is the knowledge of how little we know and can know.”
There are so many more gems of wisdom. For example, Brooks notes that in current culture there is a new phase of life. Most of today’s parents and grandparents grew up in a world with four life phases, including “childhood, adolescence, adulthood and old age.” Today’s young will experience at least six phases, Brooks suggests: childhood, adolescence, odyssey, adulthood, active retirement, and old age.
While many parents expect their 18- and 19-year-old children to go directly from adolescence to the adult life of leaving home and pursuing their own independent life and a marriage relationship, their children are surprising (and confusing) them by embracing their odyssey years: living at home, then wandering, then back home for a time, taking a long time to “play around” with their education before getting serious about preparing for a career, and in general enjoying their youthful freedom. Most parents are convinced they’re kids are wasting their lives when in fact this is the new normal.
The odyssey years actually make a lot of sense. The young “…want the security and stability adulthood brings, but they don’t want to settle into a daily grind. They don’t want to limit their spontaneity or put limits on their dreams.” Parents can support this slower pace with two thoughts: 1) the kids usually turn out better because they don’t force themselves to grow up too fast like earlier generations did, and 2) the parents get to enjoy a similar kind of relaxed state in the “active retirement phase.”
Most odysseys pursue life in what Brooks calls The Group—a small team of friends who help each other through this transition. Members of a Group talk a lot, play together, frequently engage entrepreneurial or work ventures with each other, and fill the role of traditional families during this time of transition. Even odysseys who live at home for a time usually spend much of their time with their Group.
This book is full of numerous other ideas, stories, studies, and commentaries. It is the kind of reading that you simply have to mark up with a highlighter on literally every page.
Whether you agree or disagree with the ideas in this book—or, hopefully, both—it is a great read. Not a good read, but a great one. Some social conservatives may dislike certain things such as the language used by some characters or the easy sexuality of some college students, and some liberals may question the realistic way characters refuse to accept every politically-correct viewpoint in society—but both are accurate portrayals of many people in our current culture.
The Social Animal may not remain on the classics list as long as Democracy in America, but it could. At the very least, it is as good a portrayal of modern society as Rousseau’s Emile was in its time. It provides a telling, accurate and profound snapshot of American life at the beginning of the 21st Century. Reading it will help modern Americans know themselves at a much deeper level.
This is a book about many things, including success and happiness as mentioned above. But it is also a classic book on freedom, and on how our society defines freedom in our time. As such, it is an invaluable source to any who care about the future of freedom. Read this book to see where we are, where we are headed, and how we need to change. The Social Animal is required reading for leaders in all sectors and for people from all political persuasions who want to see freedom flourish in the 21st century.
April 13th, 2011 // 8:25 am @ rachel
Right, Left, and Above
Sometimes the best political analysis is found in surprising places. For example, Timothy Keller’s excellent book The Prodigal God gives a deep and profound analysis of modern conservatism and liberalism–clearly and effectively showing the truth, as well as the glaring flaws, of each. James Redfield’s insightful book The Twelfth Insight does the same. Both are essential reading for anyone today who cares about the future of freedom.
Quote One: “I’m pretty sure the government will be declaring martial law pretty soon, and people need to be prepared. The first thing they’ll do is take up all the guns and many books.”
It was becoming pretty clear that I was talking to someone on the extreme Right politically.
“Wait a minute,” I said casually. “None of that can happen. There are constitutional safeguards.”
“Are you kidding?” he reacted. “One or two more Leftist judges, and that won’t be the case anymore. Things are out of control. The country we grew up in is being changed. We have to do something now. We think the Document is going to call for a real rebellion against the Leftists.”
“What?” I said forcefully. “I can’t see anyone getting the idea of rebellion from this Document–maybe a more enlightened Centrism. Have you read it?”….
“You better wake up,” one of them yelled. “You people on the Left are ruining this country, and we’re not going to stand for it much longer. We’d rather have the corporations take over than you idiots.”
Quote Two: “You’re one of those Right-wingers,” the loud man said, waving a finger at Coleman. “If you weren’t, you wouldn’t be talking like this.”
Coleman shook his head. “I’m only saying that it takes a balance. Some people want big government totally regulating everything and others want big corporate influence and very little regulation. I think the best position is right in the middle…”….
“Where are you going, Right-winger?” one of the other men shouted. “You aren’t going to win. If we have to install a dictator, we’ll do it. You aren’t going to win!”
Quote Three: This type of controlling is the chief characteristic of those both Left and Right, who have a primarily ideological approach to politics. They don’t want to debate the issues. They want only to shout down the opposition and win….
Both extremists were using the same tactic. If someone disagreed with them even slightly, they were simply pushed into the opposite extreme category–so they could be dismissed and dehumanized and not taken seriously. That way, each side–far Left and Right–could justify their own extreme behavior. Each thought of themselves as the good guys having to fight to save civilization from a soulless enemy….
“[C]ivility is the first thing that goes out the window. Those holding on to the old worldview often begin to cling to their obsessions with ever greater ferocity…”….
“The political Left and Right are both moving to the extreme because each thinks the threat is so great from the other side that extreme measures need to be taken. And of course, it’s all self-reinforcing.”
In addition to the competing views on the Right and Left, Redfield discusses those in the world who actually want conflict–for the benefit of their politics or positions of power. Hamilton discussed these same three groups in Federalist Paper number 1 (the effectual introduction to The Federalist).
A Parable for Our Time
One major problem with our contemporary politics was taught quite clearly two millennia ago in the parable of The Prodigal Son. The word “prodigal” means to be wasteful, which certainly applies to our modern government. In this parable, a father has two sons. The first son is obedient and orderly, follows the father and does what the father expects. The second son asks for his inheritance early, then spends it in riotous living.
When the inheritance is all spent, the second son comes crawling back to his father, begging to be a servant if he can just live at home and have food to eat and a place to sleep. The father throws a party, welcoming him home as a beloved son.
The elder son is livid. He sees even more of his own inheritance being spent on his wasteful brother, and he is hurt that his father never threw such a party for him–despite all his years of faithful obedience.
The climax of the parable comes when the reader asks this question: “Why did Jesus tell this story? What was his point?” Anyone who has read the parable clearly sees that the point is not to chastise the younger son, but the older. What does it all mean? Whatever your religion or beliefs, these are interesting and important questions.
Our modern politics fits very well within this parable. Conservatives believe in standards, responsibility, morals, conformity and in those who do these things reaping the benefits of their orthodoxy. Especially, they don’t want the father (government) taking their money to benefit those who haven’t taken care of themselves.
Liberals value the freedom to live as they see fit, pursue their own happiness their way, discover and seek and find themselves, not be tied down by dogmatic rules or outdated social customs, and they believe a higher authority (father/government) should always be there to help any who suffers.
That’s a conservative way of defining liberalism. But let’s consider it from a liberal perspective: The older brother was just plain mean. That’s often the problem with conservatism, or libertarianism, from the liberal view. The father used the elder son’s inheritance to take care of the younger son because he needed it–help, love, dignity, some basic human kindness and respect. Of course any loving father (or government) should do the same.
This is the old conservative-liberal argument, debated since Plato versus Aristotle. A person needs help. One side says: “Too bad, he did this to himself, he doesn’t deserve help, don’t help him. You really have no right to use my inheritance for him anyway! You might have the power, but it isn’t right!” The other view argues: “But as a loving father (government), we simply must help him. Don’t be so mean about it. Why are you so selfish anyway? We all simply must help the most vulnerable among us.”
The two sides frequently refuse to understand each other. They may say they understand, but then they launch immediately into a discussion of how their side is right and the other is wrong. They even call the other side “stupid” or “evil” for not understanding.
The True Elder Brother
What is missing in our current politics is what Keller calls “The True Elder Brother,” the other brother who isn’t depicted in the parable but is clearly meant to be there. As Keller put it: “This is what the elder brother in the parable should have done; this is what a true elder brother would have done. He would have said, `Father, my younger brother has been a fool, and now his life is in ruins. But I will go look for him and bring him home. [Note that this occurs before the younger brother even comes home on his own.] And if the inheritance is gone–as I expect–I’ll bring him back to the family at my expense.’ [Note: he doesn't leave it to his father's/government's expense.]“
This is leadership. This is the example of a citizenry that handles things. “Poor, hungry, in need of education? We’ll help. We won’t ask government to do it. We will do it. Now. Without waiting, without questions. Somebody needs help? Here we are. Send us.” Or simply, “Give us your poor, your tired, your struggling masses yearning to be free . . .”
That’s what free people do. The old liberal argument (“government should use its power and force to fix the problems”) is as bad as the old conservative argument (“it’s their own fault, so too bad for them–let them suffer, or let someone help them, but don’t you dare make me help!”).
But free people act like free people. They see needs and they go to work helping. They don’t turn to government (they know that this is a bad use of force) and they don’t ignore the needs (they know that this is selfish and wrong). Such a society stays free, and if they ever stop being this way they know they will lose their freedoms. Indeed, they won’t even deserve to be free anymore.
The great question of freedom is, will the people govern or will they politic? Will they lead or snivel? If the first, they will spread freedom; if the second, their freedom will be lost.
Our Job as Citizens
Problems will arise. A free people handles them, leaving to the government only that which can only be done at the highest levels–like national security and fighting crime.
The problem is that in party politics, everything becomes about government. Liberals want government to fix everything, conservatives want the government to stick to national security, law enforcement, education and projects that benefit one’s own state. This becomes the ends and means of the whole debate. Meanwhile, who is helping those in need? And who is watching the government to make sure our freedoms remain strong?
Both of these jobs are the roles of the citizenry–not the government–in free nations. But when politics gets involved, we forget and ignore both. When this happens, freedom declines. The solution is simple: as citizens we must stop getting caught up in political issues and give our time to two things: helping those in need, and understanding and maintaining freedom. These are acts of governance, not politics. The one great act of politics we need to do is vote, and elections will be much more simple if the citizens are doing their two great governance roles!
So, let’s test ourselves. Are we deserving of the title of free people, or are we something else? Let’s find out. In your neighborhood:
- Several poor families need help
- Immigrants come looking to make a living
- The environment is being polluted
- Several minority families can’t afford college for their children
Do you call in the government? Many liberals and conservatives (along with many socialists and Democrats) would take this path. It is what the father did in the parable.
In contrast, do you comment on how these people should “get off their butts” and fix their lives, and then do nothing else? Then, when the government does something, do you throw up your hands in anger and frustration? Many conservatives and liberals (and many extreme conservatives, libertarians and Republicans) are with you in this choice.
Another option: Do you visit the families, make friends, offer the father a better job or get him an interview with a friend of yours, start a scholarship drive for the college-age kids, get together a service project to clean the polluted areas, etc.? These are the behaviors of people who deserve freedom.
“But the government won’t let us!” many will argue. “But if we do the work, they just won’t value it.” “But I’m too busy supporting my own family.” “But really fixing this would cost way too much.” “It’s their problem–why don’t they do it themselves.” “This really is a job for government, not for regular people.” But, but, but. These are not the words of the free. Governments can be negotiated with, projects can be structured to include the scholarship recipients, you can make time for freedom or lose it, concerns can be worked through. Free people figure out how to do things right and do the right things.
The True Citizen
I once taught a college course on the writings of the American founders, and during the semester we discussed broadly and deeply the proper role of government and the need for limitations on government. I invited a county sheriff, among others, to speak to the students. He discussed a number of issues of law enforcement, dealing with people, and local government, then he mentioned that he had just written a grant to buy clothes for kids living in trailer parks. The problem, he said, was that new kids moved into his cities, but since they were poor and could only afford one pair of pants they usually smelled bad to the “good” kids in school.
As a result, the only kids who would befriend them were those using drugs or excessive tobacco and alcohol. He was very excited about his grant, which he felt would help the “trailer-park kids” make “better” friends and stay off drugs.
I found myself thinking that the so-called “good” kids weren’t really all that good. By that time my class was harassing the man for using government to solve private problems and wasting the taxpayers’ money. I listened to their exchange for about twenty minutes. In truth, the students had a good technical understanding of the founders’ writings. They understood that not everything is best run by government. I was glad to see this. But I also found myself frustrated that they still didn’t quite get it.
Finally, the sheriff got frustrated himself and asked the class: “Okay, fine, I agree that private solutions would be better than government money. But how many of you are running a private program that would help these kids? I have seven kids who need a new pair of pants right now, today, and our research shows that this one thing will keep six of them off drugs. I’ve got the pants sizes in the car. Who can help me?”
We sat in the embarrassed silence as hardly anyone volunteered.
The sheriff shook his head in dismay and said nothing. Finally, abashed, one student said aloud, “I’m a student, I don’t have any extra money.” Then, to my amazement, another student said, “It’s just not right for government to use money that way.” Others chimed in, and the debate resumed.
Afterwards, a number of students pitched in their money to help, and this experience left us with lots to discuss in later class periods. But I never forgot how quick we are to be the younger brother, the older brother, or even the father, but how slow we are to be the true elder brother.
On another occasion at a formal event in a state capitol building my wife and I sat with a nationally recognized libertarian leader. We discussed a number of topics, but somehow toward the end of the event this man and my wife got on to the subject of libertarianism versus both conservatism and liberalism. When the man said libertarianism was the only hope for America’s future, my wife told him that she hoped not.
“Why?” he asked. She told him she thought conservatism, liberalism and libertarianism all had some good features and some real flaws, and that the great flaw in libertarianism is that it not only doesn’t want government to help needy people but that it seems to not want anybody to help them.
The man surprised us by trying to convince us that everybody in need got there themselves and deserves to be there, and that the only right thing to do is to leave them to their struggles. Period. When my wife gave up appealing to caring and later morality, and made a convincing case for the self-interest of charitable acts, the man angrily pulled out his wallet and said, “Fine. Just name a charity, and I’ll write you a check for it right now!” She immediately named one. He angrily shoved his wallet back into his pocket and stormed out of the room. We just looked at each other.
Certainly not all who consider themselves libertarians or far-Right have this view. But far too many people, whatever they call themselves politically, seem to adopt the ideas of the younger or the older prodigal brothers–when we should all be seeking to become the “true older brother.”
Younger brothers turn to the government, elder brothers angrily complain and bluster. Fathers (governments) take from the rich and give to the poor–after using up the majority of the money on administrative expenses. This is the world of politics. No wonder David Hume was so against political parties, and no wonder the founding generation agreed with him on this.
But “true elder brothers,” those who are free and think like the free, choose differently. They see needs and take action. They wisely think it through and do it the right way. They actually end up solving problems and changing the future for good. They are the true progressives–because they actually improve things. They are the true conservatives, because they conserve freedom, dignity and prosperity.
Conservatives most value responsibility, morality, strength, and national freedom, where liberals most highly prize open-mindedness, kindness, caring, fairness and individual freedom. The thing is, both lists are good. They don’t have to be in conflict. Indeed, both are the heritage we enjoy from past generations of free people who at their best valued and lived all of these together.
If conservatives, extreme conservatives and libertarians would all just be nicer, more caring and open, more tolerant and helpful, American freedom would increase. If liberals and progressives would all work to provide more personal service and voluntary solutions with less government red tape, we would see a lot more positive progress and change.
Freedom works, and we need to use it more. Less politics, more freedom. America needs this. When it is time to vote, we should fulfill this duty. Before and after the voting, we should fulfill the other vitally important roles of free citizens: build our communities and nations, support a strong government that accomplishes what governments should, study and truly understand freedom, keep an eye on government to make sure we maintain our freedoms, and voluntarily and consistently help all those in need.