In Pursuit… Hardness and Happiness, Internalizing Weber, Ignoring WilsonPosted: August 13, 2013
Greetings to all. Welcome to another episode of happiness! As with the first installment of meditations on happiness my goal here is not to insist upon conclusiveness from the conclusions I draw, but to encourage contemplation of American ideals and to revive the lost American ideal: happiness.
As a jumping point I refer to a contribution from one of our commenters, Ralph B., who posted a link last week that stimulated my thinking on the connection between happiness and the American Dream. Thank you, RB.
Here’s the link:
It wasn’t the subject of this article that struck me most. it was the substance. It was what the underlying assumptions had to say about the greater contemplative consciousness in America: What we Think and How we Think.
The premise of the article, from which all else proceeds:
Americans pride themselves on their intergenerational mobility. Our nation’s exceptionalism is organized around the American dream: No matter where you come from and no matter who your parents are, you can rise to the top of the economic ladder, so long as you are willing to commit yourself and work hard.
Its author, Cass R. Sunstein concludes that America has failed to aspire to its own ideal. If one accepts his premise – his description of the American Dream – then indeed, he is correct. What he does not seem to do is question the substance of our national aspiration by examining its essential elements: egalitarianism, avarice, ambition, and hard labor.
Sunstein’s encapsulation of the American Dream is a good one in terms of generally accepted “wisdom” or convention. Some permutation of it reiterates across spacious skies, perpetuates across amber waves of grain, scales purple mountain majesties, and cuts across the fruited plain – the American dream makes America beautiful, and it is emblematic of our exceptionalism. Politicians from every point along the political spectrum define the American Dream in much the same way as Sunstein has done here.
The American Dream as it is conceived today is also a fabrication, a mythos, and a distortion of founding ideals. In short, the American Dream is completely false. The purported ideal elevates our national identity and by extension, our personal identities. But given that ideal is a subversion, it facilitates our illusory elevation while simultaneously facilitating our gradual decline.
Perhaps the place to start is calling out the American Dream for what it is: It is the Protestant Work Ethic. The Protestant Work Ethic, however, was not a component in the attempt to secularize national values when devising the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. Another term for the Protestant Work Ethic is Puritan Austerity. Puritan Austerity is precisely what Enlightenment institutions intended to dispel. America was not founded as a Christian nation, but it was founded on secularized morals and values. The American Dream as we know it, however, does not a represent secularized morality intended to unite a diverse people as the Founding Fathers intended.
If we unpack the American Dream to reveal its inner layers, what we find are strata encoding not only what we think, but how we think. When we do peek through the surface, its inner sanctum looks a bit regressive for its vestigial religionist character. The American Dream may not articulate a specific God, but it it is upheld by a specific religious code – the Protestant Work Ethic.
Religious values and religious morals are embedded in the American Dream for the Protestant Work Ethic itself cannot be secularized. Hidden inside the Protestant Work Ethic is the old adage “Idle hands are the Devil’s playground.” Humanity is by nature evil, and humans will do evil if that impulse is not constantly controlled and incessantly put in check. Humanity must keep constant vigilance against the touch of Satan’s hands. If one can successfully keep pace against Satan’s influence, one will find reward both on Earth and in Heaven.
This is the conflation of idleness and sloth. The casting off of sloth (one of the deadly sins) implicitly manifests in the American Dream via the Protestant Work Ethic as “you can rise to the top of the income ladder, so long as you are willing to commit yourself and work hard.”
Sunstein’s take on the intergenerational aspect of the American Dream reveals another aspect about our general sense of the American Dream, perhaps one which goes unnoticed: how narrowly the American Dream is reduced to kin and region – in other words, how very tribal the American Dream really is. It is precisely the kind of tribalism that the Founders sought to prevent.
One subtle, but crucial omission from the American Dream is definitive identification of “common good” or “we the people” and what those phrases meant to the vision the founders had in mind for the new society to be created out of the Constitution. Herein lies the sham of the American Dream – “we the people” or “public liberty” was their vision of the American Dream. Yet, this notion is entirely absent or at best loosely implied in the general understanding of “if you work hard, you get ahead.” “If you work hard, you get ahead” also signifies a specific context: capitalism. Dakinikat recently wrote a wonderful piece on finding “we the people” within 21st century capitalism. It’s an excellent read. Her post is here:
I think the most sublime encapsulation of the genuine American Dream comes from the great erudite and mentor to every other leading thinker of the Founding Generation: James Wilson. From his Of Man, As a Member of Society:
When we say, that all men are created equal; we mean not to apply this equality to their virtues their talents, their dispositions, or their acquirements. In all these respects, there is, and it is fit for the great purposes of society that there should be, great inequality among men. In the moral and political as well as in the natural world, diversity forms an important part of beauty; and as of beauty, so of utility likewise. This social happiness, which arises from the friendly intercourse of good offices, could not be enjoyed, unless men were so framed and so disposed, as mutually to afford and to stand in need of service and assistance. hence the necessity not only of great variety, but even of great inequality in the talents of men, bodily as well as mental. Society supposes mutual dependence: mutual dependence supposes mutual wants: all the social exercises and enjoyments may be reduced to two heads – that of giving, and that of receiving: but these imply different aptitudes to give and receive.
In this passage Wilson describes the secular morality upon which the Constitution would function, the principles upon which it was designed. Note his recognition of diversity, the very diversity that capitalism exploits in its spirit of competition – in its Social Darwinism. But Wilson articulates a very different vision, one that connects happiness and diversity to equality and egalitarianism. In this scenario, “hard work” connotes a meaning not of working for individual success or achievement, but for the happiness of the whole. Individuality isn’t denied, rather it is fully recognized as a component of natural diversity. Moreover, thriving, diverse individualism is contingent upon others rather than solely on the self.
John Dickinson, writing in defense of the new Constitution expressed it this way in his Fabius Letters:
Humility and benevolence must take place of pride and overweening selfishness. Reason, rising above these mists, will then discover to us, that we cannot be true to ourselves, without being true to others – that to love our neighbors as ourselves, is to love ourselves in the best manner – that to give, is to gain – and, that we never consult our own happiness more effectually, than when we most endeavour to correspond with the divine designs, by communicating happiness, as much as we can, to our fellow-creatures.
Happiness and the American Dream from this Constitutional perspective strictly revolved around union and interdependence, not the individual “rugged” struggle implied in the American Dream of today. The true American Dream isn’t to work “hard” for personal gain; it is to work “together” to create a mutual space where all may prosper.
Locating the dream in monetary success is another slice of the faux-ideal I would consider rudely cut and a bit off the mark. Well, that’s an understatement. I’d consider it diametrically opposed to founding intent. One of the primary goals in creating a new government out of the ashes of the Articles of Confederation was addressing wealth inequality.
Again, the founding vision for the new society was not “if you work hard, you get ahead.” It was “if we work together we all get ahead.” The analogy from the Constitutional Convention was the short but stout pyramid, very wide at its base but not ascending to great height. By virtue of inherent diversity as described above by Wilson, individuals scaling to the highest rung was not the ideal. This original American Dream envisioned all individuals, each with varying abilities ascending the rungs of the prosperity ladder at varying levels, broadening prosperity rather than narrowing it.
Hence the Founder’s goals were to delimit wealth inequality in their own time, but also generationally, step by step (rung by rung), generation by generation through time. But the way to do that was not by valuing the top rung of prosperity; it was by valuing the many staggered rungs distributed horizontally. In other words, not desiring the top rung. As a matter of policy and governance, inhibiting wealth inequality meant curbing avarice and ambition.
In this way, decreasing inequality and increasing egalitarianism could be realized. Modest existence in order to sustain the masses was the American value. This value very specifically contradicts the capitalist value of unlimited wealth accumulation by individuals. Short” step” pyramids and tall, narrow pyramids are two distinct and mutually exclusive ideals. Today’s American Dream implies the latter and doesn’t even give lip service to the more authentic former ideal. Indeed, the capitalist ideal is generational only in terms of generating more wealth – unlimited wealth generation in the short term. The true American ideal is wealth generation for sustainability, frugality and modesty to preserve subsistence for all in both short and long terms.
While I can’t say I can precisely trace the degradation in the American Dream that took place between the Founding Generation and our own, I suspect Max Weber is a good start.
Weber coined the term “Protestant Work Ethic.” In The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism he claimed that the Founders possessed this eponymous ideal and engaged in explicitly capitalist pursuits. He asserts that they associated capitalism specifically with religion. Weber is an important figure in the history of ideas, but I disagree with his interpretation. The Founders weren’t capitalists. If anything they were an amalgamation of proto-capitalists and proto-socialists. The Constitution was imbued with a secular communitarian ideal which combined elements of what we now might call capitalism AND what we now might call socialism. What I think Weber does is he mythologizes proverbial frugality – the kind that might be found in Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac. Weber then translates this popularized “ideal” as Puritan Austerity. I question his entire thesis, but the main point here is his conceptualization of capitalism and American values.
Weber’s ideas were more influenced by 19th century economic development than by previous eras; in this regard his historicity isn’t so nifty. His time was the golden age of the robber barons. It seems to me Weber inaccurately attempts to define an ideological line of continuity between the Founders and the late 19th century. I respect Weber’s attempt, but I do think he draws incorrect conclusions about founding ideals. In my view, the 19th century largely re-worked and, quite frankly, undid the founding ideals that forged the nation. Neither unfettered capitalization nor massive industrialization were regarded as positives by 18th century standards. Jefferson, for instance, disliked industrialization. He lamented newly emerging factories especially in terms of their negative impacts on the citizenry as a society of individuals – in an individual’s ability to achieve personal sovereignty. Hamilton held the view that capitalism should primarily serve the interest of the government of the people rather than an individual’s personal interest.
I suspect, too, that the myth of the rugged individual — the noble-spirited “hard worker” evolved from three primary factors: 19th century institutionalized servitude that arose in response to capitalization and industrialization combined with the exploitation of the American frontier; and in the 20th century the rise of fascism, Cold War/Red Scare hysteria that transformed capitalists and capitalism into heroic antagonists battling “collectivist tyrant-dictators.”
This is only speculation on my part – matters to think on. It seems to me the myth of the rugged individual evolved out of the frontier experience, but not so much our historical experience, rather our fictional one. Westward Expansion marked the period when America developed its own distinct literature which is uniquely defined by rugged individualism. Although there are extraordinary letters, diaries, essays, and memoirs to be had from the 18th and 17th centuries, no colonial or uniquely American literary tradition evolved then. Even the most famous American novel depicting 17th century Puritanism, The Scarlet Letter, was published in 1850. Curiously enough, all its main characters are drawn with varying degrees of “rugged individualism.” It is more of a scathing commentary than an historical rendering, to be sure. Another thought on that point – the community isn’t the communitarian ideal expressed by the Constitutional defenders. The Puritanical community in the Scarlet Letter is quite plainly tyrannical.
And now for an abrupt halt. As this post has gotten quite long, perhaps this is a good place to pause for a segue-way into the next portion – the 20th century.
For now, perhaps we can focus on not taking the American Dream for granted. And maybe ways in which we might transform the American Dream into a more authentic aspiration which specifies happiness, genuine egalitarianism, and sustainability.
A couple of questions that I’m trying to answer:
Does the American Dream make sense?
Does it enhance happiness or does the American Dream today actually sabotage happiness?