Personal consumption drives our American economy. To uplift the financial markets and restore confidence on Wall Street and Main Street, everyone now wants the consumer to buy more. Without an aggressive expansion of consumer spending, corporate earnings will remain depressed, growth will stagnate, unemployment will increase, and stock values will decline even further. What then should we do?
The answer is simple and straightforward; the remedies, however, are not easy to implement. Our economy is weak because our society is weak. Our markets are lackluster because they are detached from an identifiable national life of genuineness, meaning and purpose. Rather than seek economic recovery in more accelerated purchases of material goods – goods which are largely unrelated to the requirements of a dignified private and public existence – it is time to ask the antecedent question: What kind of an economy relies for its buoyancy on the ceaseless consumption of more and more “things,” a consumption that bypasses progress and crowds out our capacity to do anything serious or important?
We Americans should recall Ralph Waldo Emerson. Writing during the middle of the 19th century, the great transcendentalist spoke knowingly of “self-reliance.” And he understood that a foolish “reliance upon property” was the result of “a want of self-reliance.” Today, living in a condition of delirious collectivism and endless conformance, the typical American wants more than anything to be like everyone else. The message is everywhere. We are what we buy.
Serious thought is an intolerable pretension. Electronic gadgetry is the very apex of consumer desire. Education, “higher” as well as elementary and secondary, is for the most part entirely vocational. Not surprisingly, we graduate newly minted Ph.D.s, M.D.s, SJDs and MBA’s who are at best marginally literate. What else could we expect?
Do we want a truly robust economy and stock market? Then we first have to reorient society from the corrupted ambience of the multitude and mass taste to a noble environment of thought and beauty. Let us be candid. In America, the most bountiful and privileged nation on Earth, there is also great anxiety and far-reaching unhappiness. Taught from the outset that “success” lies in consumption, the American “Mass Man” (and Woman) – strongly encouraged by all public authority – celebrates the ordinary and the commonplace. Jostled by mass entertainments and nurtured on mass foods, this present-day American dares not seek fulfillment where it can actually be found, in personal authenticity, reverence and “self-reliance.”
The American “Mass” now crushes beneath it everyone who seeks to overcome the crowd and become a person. In the schools, in the universities, in the professions, in politics, in the streets, the “Mass Person” rejects everything that is excellent, individual, qualified, singular and select. One can hardly be surprised at the weakness of our markets and economy. It merely mirrors a palpable weakness of our spirit.
Our economic vitality remains dependent upon Mass Society. Such dependence can never succeed in the long-term. Following Emerson, it is time to create conditions whereby an American can feel alive without surrendering to mass – a surrender for many that is accompanied by mountains of drugs and by oceans of alcohol. This will not be easy, of course, so long as the pleasure and promise of a simpler and more contemplative and more aesthetic life is unknown to the many. The change should begin in the schools, which must turn away immediately from the insidious mob tyranny of “standards,” to an education focused upon respect for the Individual. On the numbingly desolate stage of American society, we have had enough of the chorus. What we need now, desperately, are protagonists.
Left unchanged, our American society, after sucking out the very marrow of individualism, will be left bloodless, a skeleton, dead with that rusty death of machinery, more hideous even than the death of a living organism. The economy, following society, will become more and more anemic, the victim of a mass culture that must inevitably exclude what is necessary. The only alternative, the only real creator of economic and investment growth, lies in an improved social order in which the Individual, firmly liberated from the mass, can begin to take himself or herself seriously.
LOUIS RENE BERES was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and is Professor of International Law at Purdue University.