Humans like systems. They give a sense of security and structure. There is nothing wrong with liking systems, but they can be problematic if people believe that they have built their lives on one that failed. Rod Dreher, author of The Benedict Option, described in an interview with The New Yorker his roots in Louisiana and small-town America:
He [Dreher] wrote a book, “Crunchy Cons,” about how conservatives like him – “Birkenstock Burkeans” and “hip homeschooling mamas” – might change America. Ruthie [his sister] never left. She was a middle-school teacher, and her husband was a firefighter. She could not give a damn about Edmund Burke and the New York Post.
[T]here was a rift between Dreher and his family. His father, a health inspector, had never forgiven him for moving away; his nieces found his urbanity condescending. [….] Later Dreher learned that Ruthie and her husband were struggling financially and resented the fact that he made twice their combined salaries for reviewing movies. His father considered him a “user” – someone who succeeded by flouting the rules.
As a southerner, too, I can attest to the veracity of Dreher’s experience, on the broader society level, though not the familial one. The problem illustrated by Dreher’s story is one of false systems. His story is one of the actual American dream: small-town boy with scant financial means leaves for university, performs so well there that he attracts notice and is hired immediately after graduation by a big-name newspaper, from whence he then builds his name and fortune as a writer and commentator.
One of the greatest strengths of the American experiment is the idea that there are no fixed rules on the way to success, beyond those indicated by morality or common courtesy. In so far as there might be a common structure for a particular career path, Dreher followed it; in a general sense, the path that he took mirrors that chosen by most American literary greats, ranging from Mark Twain to F. Scott Fitzgerald to Ernest Hemmingway. If anything, young Dreher was a rule-follower. There were no rules that said a young southern man had to return to his hometown, go to work for the government, and spend a lifetime living with limited personal and professional prospects and options. The American custom is supposed to be “ever upward; ever onward.”
One of the most important books at the time of America’s founding was John Bunyan’s religious allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678). Initially, the book’s popularity correlated to the first immigrants, the Puritans, or Pilgrims, who wished to establish a religious state. However, the book’s themes of personal goals, pursuit of bigger things, and leaving home on quests of self-discovery and fulfillment resonated with Americans long after the Puritans had faded from the scene. In 1868, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women featured The Pilgrim’s Progress as a major influence on the March sisters, who were supposed to be all-American girls, albeit idealized role-models. The rationale for apotheosizing The Pilgrim’s Progress, Alcott argued, via the fictional family March, was that the virtues taught in the book provided a framework that ensured success for any walk in life, career path, or socio-economic system. Regardless of religious affiliation – and the Alcott family was religiously unaffiliated – Bunyan’s Christian virtues were the best buttress against change and insecurity, mostly because they encouraged material providence while also advocating mental and spiritual detachment.
Alcott’s idea is relevant when considering how the American model switched from the March family to Dreher’s father. The Institute for American Values (IAV) is a think tank dedicated to studying the moral and ethical pillars that supported American society during the apex of the country’s development, i.e. the time when society was more supportive of economic, religious, and civil liberties, and the citizenry was more independent, entrepreneurial, and innovative. In 2009, immediately after the 2008 financial collapse, the institute published the book Franklin’s Thrift: The Lost History of an American Virtue, which chronicled the shift in attitudes toward saving and investing from the time of the Founding Fathers to the Great Recession.
At the founding of the country, the book explains, Americans were completely dedicated to the acquisition of personal capital through saving and investing. Equally important were books on economics, politics, personal finance, and self-improvement, the four most popular genres in post-Revolutionary America; as the authors of Franklin’s Thrift note, the American people practically created the self-help genre through their thirst for knowledge and desire to better themselves. This attitude contributed to American prosperity directly since
Savings banks [a version of the regular bank appropriate for frontier life and culture], as did other cultural institutions, asserted that the better life was possible – and that individuals were responsible for bringing this about through their own hard work and self-denial.
The idea was that there was no system that led to the “better life;” there were only institutions that provided help along the way. Thrift in early America embodied self-determination, the ability to control one’s own destiny. Taking responsibility for this ability was a distinguishing feature of a worthy citizen, a concept Alcott subtly incorporated into her book.
Fast forward to the 1920s, when the transition from the March family to the modern American family occurred, according to Franklin’s Thrift. In 1923, anti-debt, anti-profligacy candidate Calvin Coolidge won the presidency and through pro-business and capital growth policies launched the country into the consumer era. But Coolidge’s triumph ended with the Great Depression and unemployed, indebted parents raiding their children’s savings accounts [a chilling anecdote from Franklin’s Thrift]. This was not Coolidge’s fault; as the book recounts, he used his platform as president to preach saving and investment, equating them with dignity and self-worth. He was swimming against the popular culture current.
Even before World War I, the advent of industrial capitalism had altered the American temperament. Economist Alvin Saunders Johnson (1874 – 1971) warned of the loss of self-sufficiency and its culture of self-improvement in his 1907 study “Influences Affecting the Development of Thrift:”
It is no part of the workingman’s view of progress that each individual should become the owner of a capital whose earnings may supplement those of his labor. No such supplementary income should, in the laborer’s view, be necessary.
By 1923, Coolidge’s letters and speeches on the dignity of capital acquisition, the morality of ambition and personal goals, and the beauty of independence were hopelessly outmoded for an American public, which wanted a get-rich-quick, have-it-easy, regular paycheck system. Instead of the old dream of being “one’s own man,” the goal was to climb onto another, richer man’s payroll.
When the Great Depression hit, the other man became the government. With Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a Franklin who did not believe in thrift, and his New Deal, the US officially became a welfare state, and a “system” was born. The “system” bore no resemblance to the values of the American Founding Fathers, and, when combined with rhetoric borrowed from John Maynard Keynes, who denounced saving and investing as selfish, it sounded the knell of generations of American providence and entrepreneurialism.
The new America was one where everyone sought security first, at the cost of independence and dignity. The average American now had no desire to be one of the March sisters, who wore old clothes but also had independence and opportunity. A young person’s task was not to go make something of himself, but rather to go find work in a fixed, established place of employment, such as a factory or a government department. Government encouragement of this mentality only cemented it further. Although the “system” was completely artificial and ahistorical, it became the only socially acceptable path for the average American. This is how Dreher became branded as a “user” by his family, even though his path represented a return to the historical mean.