Europe – the Tempations of Pleasure

February 26, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

At the ESS, in almost each session I attended, a speaker would refer to Charles Murray’s recent book.  This would happen in the Q-and-A, not in the formal presentation, and the speaker would invariably add that he or she had not yet actually read the book. 

Neither have I.  But for the purposes at hand, what we get from the reviews or excerpts is probably sufficient.  I’ll be curious to actually read the book and see Murray’s data on the moral disintegration of the white working class, but what strikes me now is Murray’s choice of bad guys – the liberal white elite. 

This explanation is nothing new.  Forty years ago, James Q. Wilson was making the same argument to explain the increase of drugs, crime, welfare, and out-of-wedlock births among African Americans in the 1960s.  It seemed unlikely then that what kids in Bed Stuy were doing had anything to do with ideas about “self-actualization” and “self-expression” that were becoming popular at Brandeis and Berkeley. But that was the argument Wilson was making.

Fast forward to 2012, and who does Murray blame for trends among poor whites?  Educated liberals . . . even though Murray allows that their behavior is exemplary. Yet they are to blame because they have not raised their voices in judgment on the ways of poorer whites.  This reluctance to preach is immoral not just in its consequences; its causes too may be venal.
If you are of a conspiratorial cast of mind, nonjudgmentalism looks suspiciously like the new upper class keeping the good stuff to itself.
Murray and Wilson are smart guys, so it must be something other than the evidence (or lack of evidence) behind their anti-liberal animus.  Something leads them to see a causal link between the behavior of rich liberals and that of poor people, and that something seems to be the Protestant Ethic*, a mind-set that makes them deeply suspicious of pleasure.  Virtue, in this Protestant-Ethic view, resides in self-denial, and much of Murray’s book is about how the decline in virtue has led to personal and social disaster. (My earlier post on this is here. )

But even where this abandonment of the Protestant Ethic has had no such visible ill effect, Murray insists that something is wrong.  Like in Europe.  Murray writes about the Europe  “Syndrome” – a complex of “symptoms.”  But it’s different from other diseases because it’s just so darned attractive.  In this passage late in the book, Murray looks across at Europe and sees an incarnation of the Pleasure Island scene in Disney’s Pinocchio.
There’s a lot to like about day-to-day life in the advanced welfare states of western Europe. They are great places to visit. But the view of life that has taken root in those same countries is problematic. It seems to go something like this: The purpose of life is to while away the time between birth and death as pleasantly as possible, and the purpose of government is to make it as easy as possible to while away the time as pleasantly as possible – The Europe Syndrome.

Europe’s short workweeks and frequent vacations are one symptom of the syndrome. The idea of work as a means of self-actualization has faded. The view of work as a necessary evil, interfering with the higher good of leisure, dominates . . . The decline of fertility to far below replacement is another symptom. Children are seen as a burden that the state must help shoulder, and even then they’re a lot of trouble that distract from things that are more fun. The secularization of Europe is yet another symptom. Europeans have broadly come to believe that humans are a collection of activated chemicals that, after a period of time, deactivate. If that’s the case, saying that the purpose of life is to pass the time as pleasantly as possible is a reasonable position. Indeed, taking any other position is ultimately irrational.

The alternative to the European Syndrome is to say that your life can have transcendent meaning if it is spent doing important things – raising a family, supporting yourself, being a good friend and good neighbor, learning what you can do well and then doing it as well as you possibly can. Providing the best framework for doing those things is what the American project is all about. (p.284)
Those poor Europeans.  They’ve been turned into donkeys, leading meaningless lives, unaware of the absence of transcendent meaning in their lives – sans friends, sans neighbors, sans family, sans craftsmanship, sans belief, sans everything but their sybaritic pleasures.

No wonder the Republicans constantly warn us against the temptations of “European-style socialism.” The warning is not really necessary since most Americans don’t know about legally mandated vacation time, maternity leave, paternity leave, government support for all families with children, job protection, and other family-friendly policies. Nevertheless, the conservative helmsmen stuff our ears with wax and lash themselves to the mast lest the siren song of European pleasure lead us off our American course.

* Robin Hanson, from whose blog I borrowed the excerpt from Murray’s book, says that Murray’s view of vice and virtue is part of the agricultural stage of society – “a farmer-style intellectual point of view” (the full blogpost is here). The agricultural revolution stretches back thirty centuries, give or take, but I think the puritan ideology Murray exemplifies is much more recent – not necessarily simultaneous with the rise of Protestantism, but not far off.


maxliving said...

Speaking of Murray...

Jay Livingston said...

I’m not sure if Adam Smith applies to the people Murray is talking about. In principle, they are “austere” about sex and pleasure, but they are also philosophical and forgiving about adultery, divorce, and nonmarital pregnancy – at least if the sinner is one of their own. A good thing too, since these seem to be more prevalent in that world than in blue-state America. So they live with that tension between “what we say” and “what we do.” The British upper class suffer no such contradiction since they don’t pretend to share that austere morality.

But I think that the white working class are less conflicted about one virtue – work. The trouble is that the kinds of jobs that fit with that life are disappearing – the kind of job you could get even if you blew off your education, jobs where you put in your hours, and if in your off-the-job hours you got drunk or were a less-than-ideal husband and father, you’d still be all right.

Sachin Punjabi said...

I come from India and our society has stressed on hard work,sacrifice, working for sustenance of one's family ,being a loyal spouse ,being a good neighbor and citizen . and things like that. I have noticed that if too much stress is given to this way of life , it hampers innovation and creativity. People spend their energies on being the role model of the society and overlook their true passion which are generally not that sybaritic. Along with this I also disapprove of people who move away from life by masking their difficulties with drugs and sex.But pleasures in life are also important. They free our mind and help us think out of the box. Do you think that purpose and pleasure can meet for the people ?

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