“The predictable consequence is that instead of striving together toward the ethereal glow at the top of the highest peak, we are coming apart and stomping each other and ourselves further down into the abyss…”
ne of the foremost goals of any democracy is—or should be—the satisfaction of its citizens. The goal can be fulfilled in one of two fundamental ways: economic policy and social policy. Save for hardcore Marxists who view all social politics as pure projections of underlying economic substructures and hardcore libertarians who see hardly any role for government at all, we would generally agree that some combination of economic and social approaches is desirable. But that consensus still leaves nearly all the interesting questions undecided as to how much and what variety of each of these two overarching schemas to deploy. The right balance, I contend, requires only a modicum of economic redistribution coupled with robust efforts to achieve social unity on a national scale. Today, however, we are moving in the exact opposite direction, putting ourselves on a surefire path toward a second civil war.
Extreme economic inequality is a problem. Among its many consequences are all manner of adverse health outcomes (both physical and psychological, including those adverse health outcomes precipitated by higher rates of violence) and lower levels of trust and social cohesion. But here is the thing about inequality: Once we have addressed its most extreme manifestations, there remains a vast chasm between where we are and the utopian or dystopian ideal of total equity. While Jesus was all for compassion and alms for the poor, he also wisely counseled that “the poor will be with [us] always.” The economist Friedrich Hayek elaborated on the theme:
“[A]ny policy aiming directly at a substantive ideal of distributive justice must lead to the destruction of the Rule of Law. To produce the same result for different people, it is necessary to treat them differently. To give different people the same objective opportunities is not to give them the same subjective chance. It cannot be denied that the Rule of Law produces economic inequality — all that can be claimed for it is that this inequality is not designed to affect particular people in a particular way. It is very significant and characteristic that socialists (and Nazis) have always protested against ‘merely’ formal justice, that they have always objected to a law which had no views on how well off particular people ought to be.”
Hayek’s ultimate conclusion was that while some basic level of economic redistribution through taxation and care for the needs of the indigent is beneficial, going too far in this direction is a recipe for still greater resentment than might have existed had things simply been left alone: “Inequality is undoubtedly more readily borne, and affects the dignity of the person much less, if it is determined by impersonal forces than when it is due to design,” he argued. He continued: “While people will submit to suffering which may hit anyone, they will not so easily submit to suffering which is the result of the decision of authority…Dissatisfaction of everybody with his lot will inevitably grow with the consciousness that it is the result of deliberate human decision.”
Hayek’s insight finds ready support in the bitter experience of actual socialist states. Far from achieving idyllic visions of egalitarian bliss, the planned economies and sweeping redistribution schemes in such societies brought about a narcissism of small differences and mad scrambles for scarce resources, as every minor perk, privilege, and distinction was elevated into an object of contention and envy. It was as though these socialist autocracies’ forcible crackdowns on differentiation—and, indeed, their very focus on such differentiation—had merely served to magnify the smaller range of ineluctable variation that remained.
To approach the same problem from a slightly different vantage point, the accumulation of money is inherently a preoccupation that has no natural limit. This, as Aristotle held, is why a state’s excessive cultivation of moneymaking is anathema to virtue. People invited to focus inordinately on their own and their neighbors’ finances and possessions will always want more. We understand this intuitively: Consider for how long a shiny new bauble is satisfying to you or your children before that craving to acquire the next one takes hold. For this reason, while we as a society should certainly see to it that people are not starving or lacking access to essential services such as emergency medicine and basic education, too much more than that is a case of diminishing—or even counterproductive—returns.
Facts bear out these theorical insights. While this nation’s spending on all manner of government benefits for the poor has increased dramatically from $478 (in inflation-adjusted dollars) per person in 1964, when President Lyndon Johnson launched his war on poverty, to $3,522 per person by 2016—and is, of course, astronomically higher post-COVID-19—income inequality has nevertheless skyrocketed over the same period. At the same time, even though America’s poor are, objectively speaking, doing quite well if measured on a global standard—with the “poorest 20% of Americans consum[ing] more goods and services than the national averages for all people in most affluent countries”—the Great Society’s expressly stated goal of getting America’s poor up on their own two feet and off the dole seems further away than ever, as more and more Americans have developed a dependency on government benefits in one form or another. And yet the influence of the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party and its clamor for more extreme socialist-style redistribution has only grown. These paradoxes underscore my point: Beyond a bare minimum, the pursuit of economic measures to yield lasting satisfaction is a bottomless black hole, a case of ever-more-breathless running to stand still.
But if it is impossible to achieve large-scale satisfaction through economic fixes, then how do we ensure that our citizens, and especially those who have less than others, feel valued and committed to our common well-being to such an extent that they are content to be part of our tribe rather than becoming disaffected malcontents making easy prey for revolutionary agitators? The answer is that we pursue that objective directly: Rather than trying to purchase their buy-in by bribing them with money and other material commodities, we cultivate the commitment and satisfaction of our citizenry through a culture that makes people feel they are part of something larger than themselves, a common project with a glorious past and a still greater future.
Before going further, I must pause briefly to address one objection, a certain oft-repeated refrain on the Left that has its roots in the incoherent and demeaning Marxian dogma of “false consciousness” and that is spouted regularly and uncritically today by figures like Noam Chomsky. It goes something like this: “‘Cultural issues,’ meaning everything but what matters for your life,” to quote one of Chomsky’s recent interviews, are used by the political right to distract people from their real, i.e., material, interests. Frankly, I find this strain of thought baffling; not only is it wrong-headed, but it is precisely backwards. Indeed, it is the approach of buying the public’s eternal allegiance with handouts—robbing people of agency and autonomy and fostering dependency without yielding long-lasting satisfaction—that should rightfully be considered “everything but what matters for your life.” Conversely, we should be praising rather than condemning the resort to cultural issues that get people to love and respect their country, care about their community, trust each other, and feel unified and purposeful. Yes, tending to people’s most basic material needs is essential, as I have said above. But beyond that, it is culture, not economics, that matters far more. If you are poor but happy, you are happy. There is nothing “false” about such consciousness; it is, if anything, the very kind of enlightened state aspired to by ascetic traditions throughout history and the world over, be they Franciscan, Buddhist, Hindu, Stoic, Cynic, Manichean, or other.
In our own time, as I have noted, we are moving in a direction exactly opposite to the goal. We have become increasingly reliant on handouts. In the meantime, a militant anti-culture has swept over our cultural arbiters—media, academia, primary and secondary education and the entertainment industry. That anti-culture accepts as an article of faith that our highest calling is to shed a blinding light on all our historical misdeeds and present failings as a nation and a civilization. It invites an ethos of anger, bitterness, querulousness, and hysterical overreactions to minor slights. And it invites balkanization on every level. The predictable consequence is that instead of striving together toward the ethereal glow at the top of the highest peak, we are coming apart and stomping each other and ourselves further down into the abyss; instead of being in each other’s hearts, we are at each other’s throats, locked in a battle of all against all for which no government handouts can serve as more than a fleeting band-aid.
The great 19th century French scholar and historian Ernest Renan, in his 1882 lecture, “What Is a Nation?” explained it as “a soul, a spiritual principle,” “a moral conscience,” a people “having common glories in the past and a will to continue them in the present,” “a great solidarity constituted by the feeling of sacrifices made and those that one is still disposed to make.” Renan continues, in a passage we would do well to bear in mind when we consider the self-destructive, rage-stoked frenzy for digging through our historical dirt that the purveyors of critical race theory and the demented and inaccurate “1619” version of American history have sowed among us (and which would apply with equal force even if the 1619 Project were good history):
“Forgetting, I would even say historical error, is an essential factor in the creation of a nation, and it is for this reason that the progress of historical studies often poses a threat to nationality. Historical inquiry, in effect, throws light on the violent acts that have taken place at the origin of every political formation, even those that have been the most benevolent in their consequences.”
What we need instead of “1619,” in other words, is a re-commitment to 1776, more national sculpture gardens dedicated to American heroes, more parades, more American flags, more patriotic hymns and soundings of the national anthem sans kneeling boors and ingrates, more actual civics education rather the sinister “action civics” curriculum percolating through Congress in several different disguised forms. What we need, most critically, is to get the hate out of our schools, to restore an education system that is oriented around the time-tested, ecumenical Western—and, in particular, British and American—canon and Judeo-Christian tradition rather than teaching kids to stand in judgment over those “dead white males” and others of every race and gender who challenged the limits of human greatness. And we need to teach again and again, to children and adults alike, the particular tale of American greatness, of the American Revolution and the Founding Fathers’ trailblazing experiment in democracy and their and our progressive forging of an imperfect but high-aspiring union the likes of which history had theretofore never known. In that story, the visionary explorers’ and bold colonists’ treatment of Native Americans and our nation’s history of slavery and discrimination should be presented as the regrettable dark spots they are rather than as indelible stains that leave no alternative but to trash our entire glorious tapestry.
This is a culture war, to be sure, not one we wanted or asked for or should have needed to fight, but it is a culture war nevertheless. And it is one worth waging because it is necessary to forestall the second civil war toward which we are steadily heading. It is a culture war on which our future depends and without which we will have no future together, for while we are preoccupied with our pitched battle against one another and against the shadows of our own ancestors, we will find ourselves overtaken by more vibrant nations that still cherish their own foundations, that still pay obeisance to their national heroes, that still believe in their higher callings, their greater destinies.
Alexander Zubatov is a lawyer in New York, as well as an essayist and poet.