AEI, American Enterprise Institute, American Exceptionalism, Charles Murray, Freedom, Government, happiness, Irving Kristol Lecture, James Madison, Life, meaning, political philosophy, political science, politics, religion, The Federalist Papers
“My text is drawn from Federalist 62, probably written by James Madison: ‘A good government implies two things: first, fidelity to the object of government, which is the happiness of the people; secondly, a knowledge of the means by which that object can be best attained.’ Note the word: happiness. Not prosperity. Not security. Not equality. Happiness, which the Founders used in its Aristotelian sense of lasting and justified satisfaction with life as a whole…
I start from this premise: A human life can have transcendent meaning, with transcendence defined either by one of the world’s great religions or one of the world’s great secular philosophies. If transcendence is too big a word, let me put it another way: I suspect that almost all of you agree that the phrase “a life well-lived” has meaning. That’s the phrase I’ll use from now on.
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.
It is not necessary for any individual to make use of all four institutions, nor do I array them in a hierarchy. I merely assert that these four are all there are. The stuff of life — the elemental events surrounding birth, death, raising children, fulfilling one’s personal potential, dealing with adversity, intimate relationships — coping with life as it exists around us in all its richness — occurs within those four institutions.
Seen in this light, the goal of social policy is to ensure that those institutions are robust and vital. And that’s what’s wrong with the European model. It doesn’t do that. It enfeebles every single one of them…
Drive through rural Sweden, as I did a few years ago. In every town was a beautiful Lutheran church, freshly painted, on meticulously tended grounds, all subsidized by the Swedish government. And the churches are empty. Including on Sundays. Scandinavia and Western Europe pride themselves on their ‘child-friendly’ policies, providing generous child allowances, free day-care centers, and long maternity leaves. Those same countries have fertility rates far below replacement and plunging marriage rates. Those same countries are ones in which jobs are most carefully protected by government regulation and mandated benefits are most lavish. And they, with only a few exceptions, are countries where work is most often seen as a necessary evil, least often seen as a vocation, and where the proportions of people who say they love their jobs are the lowest.
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.
It was fascinating to hear it said to my face, but not surprising. It conformed to both journalistic and scholarly accounts of a spreading European mentality. Let me emphasize ‘spreading.’ I’m not talking about all Europeans, by any means. That mentality goes something like this: Human beings are a collection of chemicals that activate and, after a period of time, deactivate. The purpose of life is to while away the intervening time as pleasantly as possible.
If that’s the purpose of life, then work is not a vocation, but something that interferes with the higher good of leisure. If that’s the purpose of life, why have a child, when children are so much trouble — and, after all, what good are they, really? If that’s the purpose of life, why spend it worrying about neighbors?”
From Charles Murray’s speech “The Happiness of the People,” given as the Irving Kristol Memorial Speech at the American Enterprise Institute’s annual dinner in 2009.
One note for the above speech: The governments of Sweden and the rest of Scandinavia, like France, do have generous pro-natal policies in place, and their birthrates are below replacement level. Yet they’re nowhere near as low as that of Germany or the “formerly Catholic” states (Spain, Greece, Italy), nor are they falling as fast as Britain’s. I touch on that fact — and the relative success of Sweden’s state-sponsored day care centers and maternal allowances — in my thesis.
The other day I was at the American Enterprise Institute and got to sit in on a small talk and film session with Charles Murray. Watch a video from that session — where he summarizes his answer to Is America Still Exceptional? — below: