Toward the end of his book From Dawn to Decadence, Jacques Barzun noted that the popular culture of our time has not “suffered from inertia.” It is mobile and ever-changing, wrote Barzun “in proportion to its predicaments….” It is a culture driven by “paralysis in one domain” and “incompetence in many.” Science and technology have continued to advance while art and literature are suggestive of outright decline. Many observers are reluctant to use the word “decadence” to describe what has been happening to us since the middle of the last century. Such reluctance, said Barzun, is only natural. But if we look at the economic side of culture, considering the sphere of business, production, trade and the market, we will find many worrisome trends. For in the sphere of economics we can track stagnation objectively.
The economy is a part of a larger culture. When cultural decadence appears, economic trouble is not far behind. It is no wonder that the economic growth rates of Europe and America have tended to slow over the last century. Many parallel developments might be cited as partial causes, or corollaries, of economic slowing. Barzun copied out an “anonymous” analyst who held that, “After a time, estimated at a little over a century, the western mind was set upon by a blight: it was boredom.”
Taking up the theme, Diana West has characterized the essential corollary of this boredom in her book The Death of the Grown-Up: How America’s Arrested Development Is Bringing Down Western Civilization. According to West, “The world of sensation engulfs grown-up and child alike. And just as we have erased the boundaries that once defined the domain of traditional childhood, we have also erased the boundaries that once regulated the patterns of average adulthood. Such boundaries – long established according to religious commandments, the law, and related conventions of self-restraint – largely vanished from the courts and the culture by the end of the 1960s.”
In her latest book, American Betrayal: The Secret Assault on Our Nation’s Character, West delves deeper into the causes of our cultural degeneration. At one point she writes, “walking back along the trail, we hit a dead end at the basic question: Why? Why did all of these things begin to happen in the first place? The common reply … comes down to this: We lost our cultural confidence. We don’t believe in ourselves, our values, anymore.” West is saying that we don’t believe as we once did – in Christianity or the free market or America. And what could be more damaging to an economy based on the free market than this sudden collapse of belief?
“The question then becomes,” wrote West, “What if that loss of cultural confidence weren’t the result of an ‘inevitable’ progression from traditional morality to cultural relativism? What if there weren’t in fact some culprit … behind the downward spiral of events…. What if the resulting ‘death of the grown-up’ were in fact … a murder?” West calls this a “half-whimsical conclusion,” but it is no more whimsical than Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises’s statement that the “history of Western civilization is the record of a ceaseless struggle for liberty.” That is to say, a struggle for liberty against those forces which aim at the restriction of human economic activity.
The economist Wilhelm Röpke once noted that genuine periods of enlightenment and freedom required the existence of a large middle class (i.e., the bourgeoisie). A large middle class could not exist without a relatively free market. It is from this market that the middle class has derived its wealth and its desire to advance the cause of liberty. Thus the true middle class, in its heart of hearts, was for Greece against Persia, for Demosthenes against Philip, for Brutus and against Caesar, for America against King George, for NATO against the Warsaw Pact, etc. It is from this self-same middle class that we meet Paul of Tarsus, the tent-maker, and Peter the Fisherman, and Christ the carpenter. These are the opposite of the strong men of history. Such have been the precursors of freedom. Caesar, Napoleon and Hitler were precursors of something at the opposite end of the spectrum.
When Mises wrote that the “history of Western civilization is the record of a ceaseless struggle for liberty” we may track the rise or fall of that liberty as the rise and fall of civilization itself. It is, at the same time, the rise and fall of the middle class and the free market; for all these things are connected, and bound together. In the middle of the nineteenth century, said Mises, “few people anticipated the over-powering momentum which the anti-libertarian ideas were destined to acquire in a very short time.” These anti-market ideas, he added, were camouflaged “as the fulfillment and consummation of the very ideas of freedom and liberty. It came disguised as socialism, communism, planning.”
In his introduction to Röpke’s Moral Foundations of Civil Society, William F. Campbell wrote that European civilization is best defined “as a resistance movement against the lure of the orient.” Campbell noted, “Man’s search for comfort and security always makes us vulnerable to the totalitarian temptation.” According to Campbell, we must take note of the extreme danger to which we are presently exposed. For as the ancient Romans fell, we also stand on the edge of an abyss. Rome was destroyed, wrote Campbell, “because of internal infection and not because of the invasion of the barbarians. Its slide into collectivism and the insect state … was what characterized the post-Augustan age. The taste of luxuries, novelty, and the cult of the colossal had corrupted the household and family. Liberty had run into license.”
The interrelationships between culture, religion, morality, self-discipline and freedom are undeniable. As Röpke explained, “The Christian element [of our heritage] has … been subjected to a continuous process of secularization until finally the power of faith, which had at first consciously and then unconsciously nourished the secularized concept of progress, rationalism, liberty and humanity, began to flag….” We can see evidence of this on every side. We have allowed our heritage to lapse. The religion of the West, together with the legacy of pagan antiquity, caused us to treasure freedom. As Mises explained, “The idea of liberty is and has always been peculiar to the West.” The age of capitalism, he went on to say, “has abolished all vestiges of slavery and serfdom. It has put an end to cruel punishments and has reduced the penalty for crimes committed to the minimum indispensable for discouraging offenders. It has done away with torture….”
Indeed, the reader should understand that the decline of the economy is not a mere administrative problem. It is not a problem to be solved by government intervention. The decline of the economy mirrors a decline in liberty and our belief in those values which have engendered liberty (i.e., Western values). If, at this juncture, anyone thinks we are about to enter a new phase of unprecedented prosperity, leaving the present economic crisis behind us, then show us that Western values are being revived. Show that the forces of tyranny are in retreat. Show that the West once again believes in itself.