Published March 6, 2017
We are living in complicated and confusing times. And although we are short on persuasive comprehensive analyses of our circumstances, we are definitely not lacking in insightful attempts to get at various bits of the whole. Many smart observers are writing about populism and elitism, nationalism and cosmopolitanism, the weakness of our political institutions, the roots and implications of economic insecurity and social and cultural breakdown, and lots more.
Many of these analyses are well worth your while, but I’ve been struck in particular by two books in recent months that have tried to think explicitly about how our attitudes toward change contribute to the mood of the moment. These two excellent books— The Complacent Class by Tyler Cowen and The Art of Being Free by James Poulos—seem at first to make almost opposite arguments, but I think their insights might be combined to point to one particularly important facet of the trouble we confront.
Cowen’s basic premise is that things aren’t changing enough, and that this threatens America’s prosperity and happiness. “What I find striking about contemporary America,” he writes, “is how much we are slowing things down, how much we are digging ourselves in, and how much we are investing in stability.”
He offers many examples of this inclination to stagnate, and proposes many possible causes. Cowen’s book is rich in thought-provoking insights and is a testament to his own voracious curiosity and open-minded intelligence. There is more to it than any summary could hope to capture. But ultimately the book seems to suggest that the great slowdown we are living through is above all a function of an excess of satisfaction. Americans are fat and happy, even those who are at the socio-economic bottom in our society. “You might think the group at the bottom cannot possibly be complacent about their situation,” Cowen writes. “But by the standards of recent history, indeed they have been when it comes to their actual behavior.”
Cowen certainly acknowledges, toward the end, that people aren’t likely to just put up with being left behind. And he notes that many Americans nearer to the top aren’t simply happy either. Indeed, he writes, “one of the great ironies of the situation is that those most likely to complain about the complacent class are the prime and often most influential members of that class themselves, namely what I call the privileged class.” But neither they nor those less privileged seem inclined to do anything about their complaints. People may be frustrated, but they are inclined to leave things as they are.
Poulos offers what at first seems like a very different kind of argument. In fact, it’s very different not only from Cowen’s book but from pretty much anything you’re likely to read about our contemporary predicament. He opens the book with a warning about that, telling his readers “This is a weird book for people who feel like they might be a little crazy.” And after spending hours as a reader in Poulos’s company you will surely walk away thinking at least one of you might be a little crazy.
This is partly because Poulos has knack for seeing certain deep and important things all at once rather than thinking his way to them by arduous steps, and this makes it hard for him to help his readers come along with him and glimpse them too. There is no trail of bread crumbs to follow, only a series of impossibly enticing invitations to leap across vast canyons, which is no small challenge for those of us who aren’t gifted daredevils. But it is very much worth the effort to try.
Poulos suggests that the craziness of contemporary American life is a function of the craziness of human life in general—that it’s one manifestation of a deeper truth about ourselves that is always a little beyond our reach, but also that some of the means at our disposal now to express our frustration with that fact can be particularly bad for us. As a result we tend to live our lives “crazily, selfishly, and melodramatically.” He takes his reader on a tour of the many facets of contemporary American craziness. But near the core of his case is the suggestion that our craziness has to do with an inarticulate fear of stagnation.
“It is a characteristic predicament of modern American life that we cannot articulate the experience of living in our world except as an experience of change,” Poulos writes. This is a crucial insight, drawn from Alexis de Tocqueville, who serves as the muse of Poulos’s book. And it suggests that worries about stagnation (that is, worries like Cowen’s) point to something deeper. But these worries, Poulos argues, don’t only manifest in a sense that life is too stagnant but also at the same time in a sense that life is crazy—that nothing is stable, that things change too much, that we are living at breakneck speed.
“Change is the perfect summation of our fascination with the possibility of everything and our fear of the certainty of nothing,” Poulos writes. And his exploration of the place of change in our thinking helps to highlight something Cowen downplays: Sometimes we resist change because we are satisfied or complacent, but often we resist change because we are fearful and insecure.
Stagnation moved by insecurity seems a little more like the predicament we are in than stagnation moved by complacency (which Cowen defines as “a growing sense of satisfaction with the status quo”). The former, more negative, kind of stagnation is what both books are really about, it seems to me. Poulos focuses on the underlying sense of insecurity, which runs much deeper than our economistic ways of thinking about politics usually suggest. Cowen focuses on the resulting paralysis, which is a huge problem for a society that is barely capable of understanding itself in any terms other than the terms of change. And both argue that the way forward is to recognize that insecurity is our natural condition and that this is by no means all bad. In this sense, the two books help to clarify each other.
Our society exhibits high risk aversion and dissatisfaction with the status quo at the same time—a desire for security in a time of diminishing dynamism. This points to a dangerous feedback loop in which our distaste for an insecure status quo leaves us wanting change but the very insecurity that makes us so unhappy leaves us fearful of change. And this can only lead to more and more frustration. That diagnosis, combining elements of Cowen and Poulos, might get a little closer to the mark than either of them on his own. And I suspect they might both agree, up to a point.
But it also hints at one more step we might take toward understanding our circumstances. It suggests that what we lack is a secure foundation for risk taking. Such a foundation would be something like the way out of the feedback loop. Sometimes we take risks out of necessity and in the absence of any other choice, of course. These are desperate risks. But in a rich, free society we usually do have other options. We are more likely now to take risks when we feel reasonably secure—that is, to take risks out of ambition and aspiration more than fear and desperation. And the risks that tend to drive innovation of the sort Cowen wants to see more of are most frequently risks taken from a reasonably secure base.
The need for a secure foundation for risk taking is one of the justifications frequently offered for the social safety net. And it is certainly among the strongest arguments (though hardly the only strong argument) for a minimum set of protections and a modicum base of provisions. That case also points to the need to design such protections and provisions with an eye to minimizing disincentives to dynamism, work, ambition, and risk-taking, which is a need our social safety net often ignores, and which should guide the ways we reform some key public policies.
But the need for a secure base for risk taking is also a case for a revived institutionalism in American social and political thought. A secure base for taking risks is one of the things that healthy familial, communal, social, cultural, economic, and political institutions can help to provide us. We talk a lot about contemporary America’s “loss of faith in institutions” in pretty abstract terms. But among the concrete implications of that loss is a sense of flux and insecurity that makes us feel like everything is constantly changing yet also makes us afraid to change much of anything. “Faith in institutions” translates to confidence in the availability of some minimal stability.
A society that has lost that confidence can easily become a society dissatisfied with an insecure status quo but too risk averse to do anything about it beyond complaining. As Cowen suggests, this may be the biggest of all the risks we face. And as Poulos suggests, addressing this problem will require a revival of some means of democratic forbearance that may in turn depend on a revival of democratic institutions, broadly conceived.
A reflection on two great new books worth reading, in any case.
Yuval Levin is the Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.