To create a robust economy, and a stable stock market, we Americans will finally have to reorient our larger society away from its long-corrupted ambience of mass taste.
In that expansive part of America that still knows very little of Wall Street, there is now great fragility and a palpable unhappiness. Taught again and again that respect and success will lie securely in high salaries, and corollary patterns of high consumption, the compliant American mass dutifully celebrates “fitting in.” At the same time, this nation widely abhors real literature, difficult ideas, or any hint of “civilizing” education. Not surprisingly, our universities, for the most part, are now more genuinely concerned with popular magazine ratings and “branding” than with any serious learning.
In his Theory of Moral Sentiments, appearing in 1759, Adam Smith noted that human beings are not made happier by their possessions but that the rich, in seeking the “gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires,” simultaneously “advance the interest” of society as a whole. Without intending any such general benefit, the wealthiest members of the nation “are led by an invisible hand” to bring forth reductions in social inequality.
None of this should ever be understood to mean, however, that the preferred path to economic growth and stability ought to come from any specifically engineered patterns of hyper-consumption.
Even if we can accept Smith’s entire core argument about the “invisible hand,” America’s best path to economic well-being can only lie in a steady retreat from mass society and in sturdy new personal affirmations of self-reliance.