Hard America, Soft America

Jonathan sent me this essay by Michael Barone. Do please read it.

Barone is almost always good. He is extremely knowledgeable about the real facts of American life. The piece hits home. I got introduced to Hard American in my early jobs in high school, and I got Hard America right socko in the teeth at U of C, which was do or die. I owe any success I have had in life since then to the U of C’s f*** you attitude — we give Ds and Fs here, so show me something or there’s the door. Yep, they do in the workforce, too. That’s training for reality. That’s Hard America.

One element Barone doesn’t play up, which I think is real, is that most parents believe at some level that adult life, and work in particular, which is every waking moment most of us have, is pretty much an umremitting, vulgar, ugly, loveless snakepit with a few winners and a lot of losers. In response, these parents figure that especially younger children can be spared the full brutality of it for a while. But by junior high anyway, these coddled darlings need to start understanding that dogs do eat dogs, that rats do race, and that there are far more asses than chairs when the music stops.

That’s Hard America. God bless it. It is better than all the alternatives. It rewards merit and punishes sloth. It produces wealth, freedom and opportunity — all very great goods. And it has, so far, conquered the world. Barone is probably right that it should be pushed down the age axis, so it starts at about age 12 from a current age 18. Then we will all work harder and sort out the winners from the losers earlier, and have more money.

I think it was Schumpeter who said that a certain pretty large proportion of any society will simply not be able to cut it in a capitalist economy. Let us call these people “losers.” So, according to Schumpeter, or whoever it was, these losers need to be given busy work and an income out of the social surplus of the productive part of society. This way these losers will feel like they are doing something useful, and have a modicum of human dignity, whether or not they have earned it. If this is not done, these losers will raise Hell and destroy the whole system. He was onto something.

There is a libertarian dream world in which there is no Soft America at all, a world of the future, if only this or that would happen today. This vision beckons half-glimpsed on the horizon, somewhat like the Marxian workers’ paradise, except with cleaner bathrooms and crisp efficiency and no grade inflation. It is an Ayn Randian world of competent “winners,” and no bureaucrats, toadies, or parasites like that half-retarded nephew of the boss working in the mailroom.

But this All-Hard-American-All-The-Time utopia will never be more than a delusion. There will always have to be a pretty big Soft America. There will always have to be a place to warehouse and cabin-off the losers who cannot hack it, who will always be misfits in the cash economy. Otherwise, these losers will have time to brood about their failures, find like-minded losers with grievances, blame society for their inability to compete successfully, and agitate for socialism, or whatever equivalent snake oil is fashionable, thus killing the goose for everybody. Much more prudent and humane to have them all work at the Registry of Motor Vehicles. They pretend to work, we actually pay them, and they don’t start a new Nazi or Bolshevik party or join Al Qaeda. Not necessarily a bad buy.

(Such thoughts are why I am a Conservative and not a Libertarian.)

My equivocal response to Barone’s piece worries me. Perhaps I don’t love America enough?

Not understanding, let alone liking, football, the symbol and soul of Hard America, may be a telltale sign. Perhaps this eccentricity is the tip of the iceberg, the first little blotch which will one day metastasize, cancer-like, into a genuine and more generalized dislike even of Hard America itself?

Naaaah. Never happen. I nail my flag to the mast. Here I stand, I can do no other. Football or not, Hard America is my country, warts and all.