“Economy, n.  Purchasing the barrel of whiskey that you do not need for the price of the cow that you cannot afford.”
—Ambrose Bierce


“That was the summer of seventy-three,” writes Forrest McDonald.  “Remember it well, and cherish the memory, for things will never be that good again.”  This is from his little book The Phaeton Ride: The Crisis of American Success, which should be studied by everybody who wants to understand the American system of political economy that we sometimes call democratic capitalism.  It is supposed to produce freedom, prosperity, and happiness—and to be exportable by example, persuasion, and force, all of which we have used with great enthusiasm, not very often with intended results.

Yet the harder we have tried to make the system uniform and efficient at home (primarily through public and private “partnership”), and the harder we have tried to export it, the less Americans seem to like it.  What we might call the Ben Wattenberg School of Optimism has touched off a cottage industry of pep-talk literature that has consumed millions of trees but seems to have persuaded few Americans that things are any better than they were in ’73.

One of the more interesting contributions to Wattenbergianism is Gregg Easterbrook’s The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse (2004).  His assessment is familiar: We live longer, have more food, cars, recreational equipment, a cleaner environment, more education, more stuff.  What did George Carlin say?  “A house is a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get more stuff.”  Easterbrook has catchy sayings about why Americans seem to ignore reality while trying to feel sorry for themselves (“catalog-induced anxiety” and “the tyranny of the unnecessary” are my favorites), but as the intrepid George Will sums up the book’s prescriptive message, “we should pull up our socks, spiritually, and make meaning by doing good while living well.”

This conjures up the ghost of Ben Franklin, the principal author and prime example of the American Myth of Opportunity.  He embodied rather than invented the notion that the American colonies were “the best poor man’s country,” but the way he embodied it gives a strong clue as to why the myth was so powerful and lasted so long.  A practical man (“man is a tool-making animal”), Franklin maneuvered from rather ordinary origins to riches, power, and fame; and his self-creation produced an important piece of American literature that promised to teach others how to do something similar.  Furthermore, what he represented to his peers was remarkably like the Scottish Realism that was the most influential part of the Enlightenment in America—certainly in New York and Philadelphia.  Common sense, it was usually called, the conviction that there is a sense common to all reflective men, a sense knowable through reason and faith, understandable in natural law, and applicable to the affairs of men and nations.  Although Franklin was not a deep reader of the Scots, he founded the Junto, which became the American Philosophical Society, and a school, which became the University of Pennsylvania, based on the sort of “useful knowledge” the Scottish Realists strove for.  In many ways, Alexander Hamilton, John Dickinson, James Wilson, and John Witherspoon were his kindred souls, if not always his public allies.

Opportunity, for Franklin, was not just rising to riches and fame and enjoying their fruits.  It was a combination of working hard, thinking hard, obeying the laws of nature, and helping to improve the place where one stood.  We all know about his acquisitive side, and his foxy side, and his humor and his inventiveness.  He invented not only stoves and eyeglasses and lightning rods, but probably also the midlife crisis, a modern malady related directly to the frenetic pace of his early life.  A more important point, however, is that all his business dealings were directed not only to his self-interest but to the improvement of his family, his city, and ultimately his country.  The Junto, the fire company, library, hospital, and the Academy were all directed, says his biographer Edmund Morgan, to making Philadelphia “an attractive place to live,” getting its citizens to “see the advantages of virtue,” allowing Philadelphians “to help themselves by helping their neighbors,” using voluntary associations “as a means of securing the success, the safety, the health, and the cultural life of the city.”

There are many things to worry about both with Franklin and with the early American economic activity that would later become “capitalism.”  The moral structure of the Myth of Opportunity, however, was tied to the best that a broad spectrum of Americans (and potential Americans) could think of themselves: individual initiative, strong families, Christian morality, voluntary association, and love of community.  The myth was actually strengthened, at least up to about 1920, by the existence of relatively unintrusive governments, a rough egalitarianism, large internal markets, steady immigration, and huge amounts of relatively empty land laden with resources and waiting for entrepreneurial exploitation.  These factors combined to produce what legal historian James Willard Hurst has called a “release of energy,” and then a period of deep change in American society, roughly 1870 to 1920, almost unique in human history.  Henry Adams remarked that a boy born in 1850 was born closer to the year zero than to 1900.  Soon thereafter, the old confidence in the myth began drastically to erode.

But there was no interruption of prosperity.  As all business progressives love to point out, the Wattenbergian graphs show us going ever upward, with just a few blips that often have been exaggerated.  One could easily argue that in material terms an average American household today contains more comfort and more “conveniences” than were possessed by any emperor in the past.  Today, we have everything our rulers have—maybe not as much of it, or as many people to hand it to us; but I’ll bet that many of my former students have every toy the President has, and probably better computers.  Those same former students told me when they were students that they did not expect to be better off than their fathers, and most American students are saying that today.

Could it be that prosperity has little to do with happiness?  Is it possible that the culture that produced the Myth of Opportunity was more important than the economic results?  Economic Man took off on a phaeton ride sometime around 1900.  Was he, like Icarus, unable to handle the chariot, forcing Zeus to shoot him down before he burned up the earth?  It’s interesting that a model of carriage appeared at that same time, adorned and complicated and useless for any purpose other than transporting wealthy people, called the phaeton.

Dorothy Thompson (b. 1893) was a young girl when the phaeton took off.  Few people recognize the name today, but at the top of her career as a journalist she made the cover of Time, was often called the best reporter in the world, and in 1939 many people would have argued that she was the most influential woman in America, excepting, perhaps, Eleanor Roosevelt.  Her column for the New York Herald Tribune reached millions of readers, and she broadcast often for NBC.  She voted Republican, which is noteworthy, given what she wrote when almost nobody was looking.

In 1939 she wrote “The Dilemma of the Liberal” (by which she meant the old-fashioned kind, and also used the word “libertarian”) for Story, a quality journal devoted to publishing the best American short-story writers.  “The consciousness that I live in a revolutionary world,” she began, “is the central fact in my life.”  The “center of what I know,” she went on, is that “never in my lifetime will I live again in the world in which I was born and grew to maturity.”

Her early world was comfortable but not particularly privileged; she had a Methodist-minister father who eventually was able to send her to Syracuse University (both Methodist and woman-friendly), where she studied economics and politics and was graduated in 1914.  Reporting (as Willa Cather also discovered) was a profession fairly open to women.  Dorothy Thompson’s success came mostly from posts abroad—first, in the Middle East, and then, for most of a decade, in Germany.  She was the first reporter to be expelled from Germany, by the personal order of Hitler.  There was never a doubt of her courage, or of her implacable hatred of the Nazi regime, or of totalitarianism in general.  She rode her talent and convictions to such prominence that she was the model for “Tess Harding” in the hit movie Woman of the Year, starring Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.  She was married, when she wrote “Dilemma,” to Sinclair Lewis, and they had a son and a beautiful home in Vermont.

What made her so restive?

“This life which you lead,” she writes, “a voice says to me continually, is in the deepest sense senseless,” and despite its comfort, “the security of our world stops at our doorstep.”  She quotes D.H. Lawrence—“I am wounded in my fundamental societal impulses”—and makes that howling hurt the theme for the rest of the essay.  “I am filled with a profound distaste for this world,” which she identifies as what her father would have called a need to get right with God.  And yes, she admits, “I am in search of a living faith in which to believe”; and she is convinced that this is not a personal eccentricity, but the state of the “largest section of western intellectuals.”  The problem is, where would those deracinated people find a living faith, having been brought up in an age of “skepticism and enquiry and a tradition of libertarianism”?  Christianity was out of bounds for rootless New Yorkers and Vermonters.  (“Who would die for Christianity?”)  She married three times unsuccessfully and raised one son to whom she was not very close.  (“The family is no longer a tribe.”)  Her dwelling places were split between the New and Old Worlds, and included nothing resembling place or neighborhood.  To what could she be faithful?

She wanted, she says, what she had seen so often in her youth: conversion.  Only in ideology did she see it in her adulthood.  She found that the communist attacks in particular were “launched not so much at the capitalist system as such, but at the whole complex of bourgeois values.”  All the talk about economics, the class struggle, lost and gained prosperity—but Dorothy Thompson hit the nail on the head.  The trouble between men and women, the sexual inversions and serial polygamy she saw all around her, the lack of security even in marriage and in work, arose in the cry, “I am wounded in my fundamental societal impulses!”  She hated the Nazis and feared the communists, “Yet I share the discontent with existing society which made both movements possible.”  Looking at newspapers and Hollywood made her feel a little like a Nazi; looking at the “irresponsible antics” of the rich made her feel a little like a communist.  No liberal faith in Progress left, only a “Liberal Dilemma”; no Myth of Opportunity to believe in, only the temptation of revolution.  And remember, she was a Republican.

Ben Franklin made a mini-comeback during the pseudoprosperity of the Reagan years.  Christianity seemed to make a similar comeback, and for a while the “suburban” neighborhood seemed to promise to be a suitable substitute for the older ones.  It turned out that a government no-fail economy locked in place by the patriotic war pushed prosperity back downward.  What had started as massive welfare protection for fictional corporate “persons” was extended to “labor” (meaning government-sponsored unions, reaching eventually into the most ubiquitous institutions of all, education and “public” service) and to the two groups destined to become, together, almost an absolute majority in America, the “poor” and the elderly, all of them subject to endlessly nuanced definitions.  Churches, it turned out, used their renewed popularity to enter the secular mainstream.  Suburbs became almost anti­neighborhoods, populated by ever-shifting groups of people who had little in common except to have fled the cities that were destroyed by planners and “renewal.”  In other words, the “fundamental societal impulses” Dorothy Thompson’s generation knew had been wounded were not healed, but smeared over with stuff.

Sooner or later, as Charles Murray is now showing us, Dorothy Thompson’s cry of despair moves down to the ordinary people who as late as the 1960’s still valued all the things she knew had disappeared.  Happiness, it seems, is indeed more directly related to good homes, the well-being of families, friends for whom we would sacrifice, reasonable opportunities for satisfying work, and especially well-ordered souls, than to a driving passion for stuff.

Having said that, how can we then explain a story I read recently in a Midwestern newspaper (which I have come to think of as a parable)?  A woman, twice married and divorced, responsible for raising four boys, a decent job with a local government bureaucracy that barely allowed ends to meet, and the possessor of a large SUV, takes a similar job over 20 miles away for just a few dollars more in pay.  An interviewer points out that if she were to sell the big vehicle and replace it with something more modest, she could remain in her present job, pay less in daycare and babysitter fees, be on the road less, and come out a little better financially.  “Oh,” she says, “I can’t give up that SUV.”

Well, perhaps the wave of gadgets (to paraphrase an English schoolboy in the 1760’s) that swept over the United States after World War II has replaced our civil society.  It may also be true that the Myth of Opportunity was suited only for a society based on republican government and republican virtue.  It certainly seems as if our productive capacity has somehow pulled loose from the things that bind real human beings together, that the phaeton ride has become more alluring than the virtue required to control it.  As Henny Youngman said, “What good is happiness?  It can’t buy money.”