Ambivalent Paradise

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Former Reason editor Virginia Postrel reviews David Brooks' On Paradise Drive in today's New York Post and finds the avatar of "National Greatness Conservatism" and the King of the Bobos archly ambivalent about America:

[Brooks recognizes that] America's economic greatness ? and, ultimately, its cultural and military power and its historical legacy ? comes from the pursuit of excellence in tasks that seem "a certain formula for brain death." Americans invent Pull-Up diapers and worry about Six Sigma quality. We concentrate on incredibly specialized problems.

Brooks is impressed by our energy and achievements, but worried about our souls: "The quest may be epic, but the goal is trivial."

"On Paradise Drive" redeems these quotidian pursuits by giving them an eschatological motivation: the "Paradise Spell." Americans, the book concludes, are driven by the enduring faith that "just out of reach, just beyond the next ridge, just with the next home or entrepreneurial scheme or diet plan" lies a new Eden.

This positive conclusion highlights Brooks' ambivalence. Why must the future promise utopia to have meaning? "Trivial" goals in fact make human life better over time. Besides, the whole point of ending starvation or curing cancer is to give more people a chance to enjoy more everyday pleasures.

Whole thing here.

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  1. The trouble with utopian notions of progress is that in order to reach that golden, gleaming, Zion that the politicians and activists promise, we have to sacrifice our lives, liberty, and/or property–without our consent, as always–in order to achieve it. Although the rhetoric usually states that everyone must share in this sacrifice you can be sure that it will be whatever politically unpopular group of the moment who will be the one’s made to pay. This is a democracy after all.

    On the other hand, libertarianism is an ideology often accused of utopian, pie-in-the-sky thinking, sometimes with more than a little justification. (For example: Read a L. Neil Smith novel sometime. I like the guy’s work, but even I’m not that optimistic.) I always thought that besides giving the blue-skinned druids, paranoid survivalists, and those who STILL are upset about the gold standard the boot, libertarians needs to level with people that self-ownership will not work for everyone, and that there will be failures, screw-ups, crooks, and scum that we will just have to put up with.

    But that won’t sell in a country where a “bridge to the twenty-first century” promised on that road (paved with good intentions, of course) to the “shining city on a hill.” We’re sold on fast talking politico with a sack full of dreams and list of enemies-we-must-defeat-before-we-reach-the-promised-land. As long as *they* aren’t the ones getting the screws put to them, whatever the state wants to do to achieve “greatness” is fine.

    Utopianism is the meat-and-potatoes of politics. As long as we have competing visions of an earthly heaven, we’re going to have intrusive government at best, tyrrants at worst.

  2. Whoops… make that “tyrants.”

  3. “Yes, they do. Preventing starvation or curing cancer make human life “more better” over less time. If a new countertop in a house in Phoenix achieves x human good, and end to the Sudan genocide achieves 1,000,000,000x human good, minimum. ”

    Depending on who you ask, intervening in Sudan may achieve no benefit at all because of the all powerful force known as ‘blow back’. Personally I find the argument silly, but I know it’ll come up soon anyway.

    As for preventing starvation or curing cancer, we are applying the best mechanism yet produced to the problem. Market competition IS cooperation. Those high drug prices you hate for cutting edge medicines? Those are powerful incentive. For profit farming produces more food than any agricultural system in history.

    Ultimately, the problem is that there are many things that we simply don’t agree on. I personally think it is ridiculous to spend a ton of money on HIV AIDS when diabetes is the unpreventable man killer it is. What you label as the ‘cooperation’ required to do thus and so is really some Power That Be choosing that someone else’s AIDS concerns are a better use of my money than my diabetes concerns.

    Americans do give quite a bit to charity, by the way, which makes me question the whole premise.

  4. “It is to Brooks’ credit, and Postrel’s shame, that he is able to recognize these priorities, and she is not.”

    I think her point was that millions of seemingly trivial developments can add up to the large scale changes Brooks seeks.

    But thanks for pointing out what a moral degenerate Postrel is.

  5. Ach… Someone’s missing the mark. The busybody next door is the type that tries to create a utopia in America- not the inventor or “incredibly specialized problem” solver. They are focused on creating utopia in their own life. Every yahoo that goes to Home Depot doesn’t throw down $7,000 grand on a deck he’ll use 30 days out of the year because he wants the neighborhood to look better. He does it because he figures he’ll be happy if he has that deck. Of course, once he has the deck then he needs a wicked stainless weber to go with it.

    Anyone read a Canticle for Lebowitz? Great line in there just as the world is about to be nuked or maybe right after, that man creates eden on earth but always feels that something is missing and so sets about to destroy it in his anger with God. That’s paraphrased, the actual line is better. It’s human nature to work toward paradise and to never achieve it.

  6. iconoclast, that was one of my father’s favorite books. “The Liebowitzian Order” of Catholic monks. “Father, I ate a lizard.”

    Jason, I recognize that there is all sorts of room for debate about the best ways to achieve the big, historic advances in human good, and I respect anyone who honestly engages with the question. But please note, I didn’t propose a specific remedy for the Sudan situation, and my motivation for doing so was only partially intellectual cowardice. The issue here is not how to achieve good, but how to conceive of it and define its scope.

    “For a thing to be real, it must first be imagined.” I don’t know how to achieve decency and hope in Sudan, but defining that outcome as comparable to some sundecks in a Utah exurb is the act of a person seeking to dress up her own lack of conern for others as a virtue.

  7. VP may not be a moral deg. but her take on Brooks is not at all convincing. Unless he’s made a u-turn since “Bobos in paradise”.
    I read BIP a while ago and the central thesis clearly seemed to be that suburbanites who obsess over their countertops are the same folks who aspire to climb to the top of Mt. Everest for summer vacation fun. Nothing in there suggests, as VP seems to think, that they wouldn’t “fight back against highjackers” – quite the reverse in fact. He may be personally uncomfortable with their “materialism” but he does not suggest that it pevents them from grand goals.
    Also, VP thinks America’s unique quality is that it specializes in perfecting trivial neccessities/luxuries – whatever happened to the stereotype of Japanese and Asians as drones with small ideas, anyway ? Boy, does this self-image clash with the one held by the outside world ie americans are the only people who can land a man on the moon and bring him back, Americans are the crazy induvidualists who try to project private space habitats onto Mars etc, etc, etc not enterprises that are mundane in conception at all and many undertaken with fairly fantastic motives. And, of course, all super-heroes are american. It should be telling that even French science-fiction novels and comics have american protagonists and themes. Praise grillmakers all you want but i’m glad for the philosophers among us.
    So for all his, red state/white state cliches and inaccuracies, David Brooks over VP on this one.

  8. So, Joe, Sudan in 2004 is essentially the same as France in 1942? Perhaps it’s just me, but I draw a distinction between liberating a conquered nation and becoming embroiled in decades long internal civil strife.

    I do not agree with the knee-jerk libertarian reflex of considering everything government does as bad and everything the private sector does as good. On occasion, government can do the right thing for the right reasons and do it reasonably well. In same manner, the private sector can behave quite badly. This said, in a free market, private, selfish motives generate more positive outcomes than public, altruistic ones. It is why a trip to market is generally more pleasant and satisfying than a trip to the Department of Motor Vehicles.

  9. When a man comes to me with a grand ambition in one hand, I worry very much about what he has in the other.

    One of the most banal places in America is “South of the Border,” a tasteless island of kitsch, junk and fireworks illegal in most other places. Rather than loathe the place, I consider it a wonderful barometer of American freedom. Leave people to their own devices, and they’ll install countertops, decks, and stainless Weber grills. They will watch NASCAR and professional wrestling. They will purchase and actually display lawn ornaments. And some will take the freedom to build a computer in the garage or something else wild-eyed.

    Until someone invents “Star Trek” technology, the world will be full of lousy jobs. If having a big screen TV gets the plumber out of bed, then praise be to the digital gods and who cares what he watches. I take comfort in the vast great vulgarity of modern America. It means there is still a measure of freedom and that the intelligentsia are frustrated. What more might one ask for… except perhaps, for a recliner?

  10. Jose, there are similarities and differences between the two. At issue here is one similarity: that the elimination of the scourge afflicting the people in both instances would require action (such as taxation) that is not entirely voluntary.

  11. The issue here is not how to achieve good, but how to conceive of it and define its scope.

    But how is that any different from what Postrel is saying in the last sentence of her essay?

  12. joe:

    Just a random thought. To what extent do you think the consumerist impulse keeps Americans employed to a level where they can afford to think big picture on occasion?

  13. Tough one, JL. I’m supposed to say, “All the money they spend on STUFF raises the std of living, and allows people more free time to ponder big questions.” But if they weren’t spending their money on consumer goods, they’d be doing something else with it – saving, investing, donating – which also have positive economic effects.

    Perhaps you’re thinking of how much harder Americans work so they can afford their stuff. But if greater leisure = greater opportunity for reflection, that’s self-negating, because the extra work they put in to buy the new car REDUCES the leisure time they can put into reflection. Although, you could say other people’s consumerism raises your standard of living, giving you greater opportunity for reflection. This would appear to be a wash, since one group has to pay less attention, so that another group has the opportunity to pay more. The most likely outcome is that both groups end up paying the same amount. The higher standard of living may increase the opportunity for big picture thinking, but the extra work put in to achieve it decreases that opportunity. A wash.

    Even so, thinking big picture is not the same as doing something about it. To the extent that consumerism encourages people to spend more time working, it reduces the time available for good works.

  14. Well, I just thank heaven that all the less-consumerist societies around the world are rushing in to do something about the Sudan while we’re busy admiring our new kitchen fixtures.

    What’s that? They’re not?

    Well, then.

  15. Phil,

    Are you nuts?! France can’t send any troops to The Sudan with their national vacation month coming up. Besides, they need the body bags for another 20,000 old people who may roast to death this summer.

    You could never understand this with your petit bourgeois American mind. Go back to the Corian catalogue and let the world be saved by the muscular diplomacy, vast coffers, and scientific prowess of…

  16. ‘”Trivial” goals in fact make human life better over time. Besides, the whole point of ending starvation or curing cancer is to give more people a chance to enjoy more everyday pleasures.’

    Yes, they do. Preventing starvation or curing cancer make human life “more better” over less time. If a new countertop in a house in Phoenix achieves x human good, and end to the Sudan genocide achieves 1,000,000,000x human good, minimum. It is to Brooks’ credit, and Postrel’s shame, that he is able to recognize these priorities, and she is not.

    It’s all well and good to argue that the luxuries ascetics sneer at are not in fact bad, and contribute to the sum total of happiness. But the attempt to equate the two goods is a transparent attempt to put a thumb on scale in favor of the reviewer’s pet ideology, merely because goods of greater scope tend to require more teamwork than those of a lesser scope.

  17. Postrel makes an apt point. It is difficult to cure cancer if the toilet doesn’t work. The kind of navel-gazing Brooks enjoys is made possible by the division of labor (however banal) and the willingness of many to sell the fruits of labor in the marketplace. While plumbing may be mundane, it makes other “greater” ambitions much easier.

    On this note, I find some comfort in the pedestrian ambitions of the American middle class. There is little mischief in buying a new plasma television or a new grill. I prefer a neighbor who is content to pursue happiness within his own walls. The neighbor who makes me nervous is the one who looks over the fence and decides what I need to do… all in the name of some grand social ambition.

    The installation of a countertop in Phoenix has a reasonable chance of making two people happy, the customer and the contractor. It is a voluntary economic transaction that increases, however modestly, the net income and wealth of the nation. If only so many positive things could be said about a foray into the Sudan.

  18. Brooks also drops the ball in assuming that this pursuit of utopia in the domestic sphere is an exurban thing. Plenty of 1920s houses in 1920s neighborhoods getting the first floor bumped out and the countertops replaced. Those people in Home Depot aren’t contractors building new subdivisions.

  19. Jose,

    There wasn’t much voluntary about what the US Army did to the Third Reich. Nor was the money spent on the Marshall Plan given voluntarily.

    So what?

  20. The ability of humankind to abuse learning for evil purposes, to continually expel itself from the Garden of Eden, perplexes and haunts the author: “The closer men came to perfecting for themselves a paradise, the more impatient they seemed to become with it, and with themselves as well.” A Canticle for Leibowitz

  21. Some lifting is far too heavy for people acting on their own, Gil, and requires state-level action. That action is by definition not entirely voluntary. I haven’t been avoiding this issue, I led off with it.

    What you are avoiding, Jose, is the uncomfortable, and usually obvious, fact that problems don’t cease to be problems when they grow sufficiently large to require state-level solutions. You blithely assume that anything good can be done voluntarily, and anything that cannot be done voluntarily is not worth doing.

  22. “To the extent that consumerism encourages people to spend more time working, it reduces the time available for good works.”

    You seem to make a distinction, Joe, between work and “good works.” I respectfully submit that the local plumber fixing my toilet is both work and a “good work.” In my experience, I have found that honest labor at a fair price is often more beneficial to both parties than charity. While one can provide laudable examples of charity, one can also note where good intentions and grand gifts have led to terrible outcomes. In some instances, charity fosters dependence, a sense of entitlement and a victim mentality. To his credit, my plumber exhibits none of these characteristics, though I do wish his pants fit better.

  23. I am quite certain, Jose, that the “works” that should be taken against Janjaweed militiamen would not be beneficial to them. Nonetheless, it would be worthwhile.

  24. Go and fight the Janjaweed militiamen, Joe, with my best wishes for success. I have the utmost respect for those willing to go into harm’s way to do “good works.” My concern is the liberal impulse to require others to do the heavy lifting… the point you have thus far avoided.

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