Selfish Pursuits


The Rise of Selfishness in America, by James Lincoln Collier, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 308 pages, $24.95

It there is one thing that both conservatives and liberals are against, it's selfishness, though they usually don't mean the same things by it. Conservatives rail against selfish women who pursue careers instead of motherhood and decry the loosening of family and church constraints on personal behavior. (Liberals call that self-expression and privacy.) Liberals lament the selfishness of taxpayers who want to keep more of their money and business owners who put profits ahead of the common good. (Conservatives call that individualism and free enterprise.) Historian James Lincoln Collier is one of those rare consistent minds who dislikes both economic and social individualism.

Part social history, part moral diatribe, The Rise of Selfishness in America can also be seen as an addition to recent revisionist scholarship seeking to vindicate the Victorian Age. Like Gertrude Himmelfarb (though his politics are quite different), Collier challenges the stereotype of Victorians as stuffy, hypocritical prudes: "These people, as a society, set for themselves goals of…charity, self-control, a decent regard for the welfare of others, a willingness to protect the weak."

Collier stresses that he doesn't idealize the Victorian Age; he merely wants to show that "there was a lot of good along with the bad." Indeed, he argues convincingly that the Victorian concern with order and decency arose in response to the crudity of habits in previous generations, when people ate with their fingers, rarely bathed, and lived amidst manure and garbage. Even the Victorian ideal of the delicate, chaste woman who would exert an uplifting influence on her husband was arguably a step up from the earlier view of women as lustful, devious creatures to be kept under strict male control.

The core of the Victorian ethos, says Collier, was self-restraint and self-sacrifice. He finds the only true realization of this ideal in 19th-century rural and semi-rural America. The farmers in loosely scattered homesteads were more independent than European villagers, but, Collier maintains, "not individualistic as we understand the term today." The farm economy bound families tightly together. Most Americans were "enmeshed in a web of family and community relationships in which subordination to the wishes of the group…was the essential rule."

Collier admits that "it was not always heaven inside of such human groups, for there was always friction and constriction in them," but he believes it paid off in "the sense of security" and "warmth of feeling." Except for such generalizations, he has very little to say about the actual realities of this way of life, saving his descriptive talents for the turpitude that replaced it.

For even as the Victorian idea was "becoming the dominant code of American society," it was undermined by a number of countervailing influences. Industrialization lured young men and women from the farm into the city, where they lived "unsupervised, and largely unsupervisable." Urbanization loosened personal ties and spawned the notorious vice districts, dedicated to everything Victorianism abhorred: drinking, gambling, dancing, and sex. (By the turn of the century about 40 percent of middle-class men visited prostitutes.) Immigration brought in people steeped in non-Victorian values and uninterested in curbing their sensual appetites.

The reformers of the 1900s sought to reimpose Victorian morality through legal restrictions rather than appeals to self-restraint. Yet just as victory seemed near, the American middle class switched sides: It was, Collier believes, "simply seduced." Every technological or social development boosted "the new ethic of the self." The phonograph and radio brought the virus of entertainment into the middle-class home. The automobile hastened the fragmentation of family and society, allowing teenagers to escape parental authority and fool around. Even the Great Depression didn't help much, as New Deal idealism was offset by the perverse desire of Americans to dip into their tattered pockets to watch Fred Astaire whirl around with Ginger Rogers.

Collier is kinder to the 1950s, the era of "togetherness" when the suburbs brought back small communities and men toiled in boring jobs to provide for their families while women stayed home with the kids. But you just can't win. Prosperity inevitably led to more self-indulgence and materialism, culminating in the plague of television. Divorce and premarital sex rates continued to climb until they soared in the 1970s, when self-gratification came out of the closet. By the 1980s, Collier grumbles, "the American people began electing governments that promised to leave them alone as much as possible to do their own thing.…And in doing so they made selfishness the official policy of the United States."

The Rise of Selfishness in America is a highly readable, informative account of the transformation of American mores in the last 150 years. As philosophical analysis, however, it suffers from major inconsistencies. Collier often confuses the concepts of self-interest, individualism, and self-indulgence, causing him to overlook the individualist elements in Victorianism. It was Ralph Waldo Emerson, mentioned here as a champion of the Victorian ideal, who wrote, "Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist" and "Nothing can bring you peace but yourself."

The fact that the Victorian work ethic wasn't purely selfless but had plenty to do with upward mobility and success is only acknowledged obliquely, when Collier says of 19th-century immigrants, "Indifferent to the Victorian notions of success…they wanted to enjoy their lives as much as possible through the warmth of associations with family and friends," as well as by drinking and dancing in saloons. That would seem to make them more hedonistic but less individualistic than the "authentic" Victorians.

Collier frowns on solitary and "passive" pastimes; hence his loathing of TV: "So long as we are engaged with the magic box, we are not engaged with others." But the formula "solitary equals passive equals hedonistic" is clearly faulty. Reading, a favorite Victorian leisure activity, is no less isolated than TV watching, while "hedonistic" dancing is both active and interactive (come to think of it, so is sex). Today's diet and exercise craze is self-centered but hardly self-indulgent, while recovery groups are interactive but devoted to the exploration and healing of self.

Despite these contradictions, and the often annoying finger wagging, some of Collier's concerns cannot be dismissed—particularly his warnings about the cost to America's children of the adults' pursuit of self-expression. He somewhat exaggerates the decline of the American family (even making the ludicrous claim that the number of children placed in day care in America today is without precedent, when it is far below the proportion in ex-communist countries or in Scandinavia) and is unreasonably harsh on working mothers, most of whom, far from indulging themselves, try as best they can to balance what's best for them and what's best for their children.

But the basic truths remain that too many kids are being raised in one-parent households, which a growing body of research shows is not good, and that too many people "have children without accepting any concomitant responsibility for taking care of them."

The critique of modern American society and the prescriptions for change outlined in his last chapter place Collier in the new "communitarian" school of thought, represented by Amitai Etzioni and Robert Bellah, which calls for responsibilities—to the family as well as to the state—to balance our perceived overemphasis on rights. And in many ways, Collier epitomizes the weaknesses of this approach. He makes no distinction between personal responsibility and responsibility for strangers, between a woman's "right" to have children she cannot support and a citizen's right to support his own children rather than hers. Incredibly, he never makes a connection between the rise of single motherhood and welfare programs.

In small communities, Collier writes, people cared for the needy because the needy were real human beings next door: "We were not created to respond viscerally to abstractions." And yet his ultimate cure for what ails us is—guess what—more taxes for social programs. (The relative reluctance of Americans to invest in the public sector somehow becomes another manifestation of hedonism—even though one need look no further than Sweden to see that a hypertrophied public sector can coexist with an ideal of self-gratification far more "official" than in the United States.)

Despite his misgivings about day care, Collier wants more government involvement in it, to ensure that profit-seekers don't take over and that poor children get quality care. He doesn't stop to think that higher taxes and cheaper child care would push more mothers into the labor force and that impersonal bureaucratized institutions would replace the neighborhood, church, and community settings in which most children of working parents are cared for at present.

Communities work precisely because they are based on personal ties, and, as Charles Murray demonstrated in In Pursuit: Of Happiness and Good Government, when the state takes over their functions—including aid to the needy—it only weakens communities. Reliance on the state makes people not only less self-reliant (and less responsible) but less likely to rely on support networks. It is in the inner city that both dependence on government and the breakdown of normal social bonds is at its most extreme.

And it is simply not true that in modern society, communities and private organizations can no longer provide mutual care and support. While Collier paints the 1980s as a monochromatic caricature, in contrast to his far more shaded portrayal of other eras, the "greed decade" was also a time when charitable donations skyrocketed and Americans devoted an increasing number of hours to volunteer service.

Collier's real fear is that when relationships and obligations are a matter of choice, people will chuck them off to pursue whatever pleasures they can. For all the assurances that he doesn't wish to return to Victorian paternalism, one detects an unmistakable note of nostalgia when he writes that in farm communities, economic needs fostered a mutual dependency that "forced people to live inside of intense personal bonds." (Emphasis mine.)

Yet millions of Americans have shown that voluntary ties can work; people still come together to find a neighbor's missing child or to raise money for an uninsured co-worker's surgery. Collier himself points out that personal and social bonds are good for people, that families and communities can be a source of profound fulfillment. He just seems to think most people couldn't possibly be trusted to make that conclusion for themselves.

Contributing Editor Cathy Young is a writer in Middletown, New Jersey.