The west is suffering from its own success

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The evidence is strong, if not quite conclusive, that smartphones damage children and girls in particular. Governments should enact at least some of the legal curbs proposed in Jonathan Haidt’s The Anxious Generation. But take a moment to savour the secular miracle here. The smartphone panic exists because we are advanced enough to have invented such a device, rich enough that most people can afford one and, above all, so insulated from life-and-death issues that sad teenagers are what pass for news. Screen addiction is a disease. But a disease of success.

To that extent, it is a parable for the west, where life can be too good for our own good. Consider another problem that has received the Haidt treatment: the culture wars. Where did the “woke” movement take hold? America, more or less the richest nation on Earth. When? In the economic expansion between the 2008 financial crash and the 2020 pandemic. Pronoun protocols, statue-toppling: this is what happens when the brain has nowhere to go, no material crisis to solve or fret about. If woke is the howl of the dispossessed, why didn’t it take hold in southern Europe after the euro crisis? Why aren’t America’s minorities all sold on it? It is, in the end, a winner’s dogma. It is an insider’s code.

To describe something as a problem of success isn’t to minimise it. Rather the opposite. Problems of success are harder to fix because, almost by definition, you wouldn’t want to remove the underlying causes of them. The most effective answer to the culture war is, after all, “induce an economic depression”.

On the same principle, the most effective answer to low birth rates is “undo modernity”. Parents no longer need to have three children to ensure that one survives. Medicine has seen to that. They needn’t even have one as a source of income support in old age. State pensions have seen to that. More people have access to birth control, and fewer are credulous enough to believe that using it is a ticket to Hell. From something precious (the Enlightenment), something bleak (demographic decline).

And even this, the baby bust, isn’t the ultimate problem of success. No, that is populism. The best explanation for the strange turn in politics over the past decade is too much success, for too long. Few voters in the west can remember the last time that electing a demagogue led to total societal ruin (the 1930s). The result? A willingness to take risks with their vote, as a bank that has forgotten the last crash starts to take risks with its balance sheet. What the economist Hyman Minsky said of financial crises, that stability breeds instability, could be the motto of modern politics too.

The challenge is to persuade western intellectuals of this. Social democratic in their biases, most continue to believe that an anti-establishment voter must be an economic loser. It is a hopeless account of the past decade. The most important populist breakthrough, Donald Trump in 2016, happened in a super-rich country, seven years into an economic expansion. The Brexit campaign won most of England’s affluent home counties. Populism can’t, or can’t just, be the result of scarcity. It can’t be solved through more and better-distributed wealth. In fact, to the extent that it liberates people to be cavalier with their vote, material comfort might make things worse.

Faced with problems of failure — disease, illiteracy, mass unemployment — western elites are supremely capable. When it comes to even apprehending problems of success, less so. Notice that, in discussing artificial intelligence, they dwell on the challenge of scarcity (What if all the jobs disappear?) and not the challenge of abundance (What will people do with all that leisure?). If smartphones were enough to cause a wave of neuroses, imagine a world without work, that rare source of structure and meaning in the secular age.

It is a conservative insight, I suppose, that if you change one thing about society, even for the better, don’t count on the rest of it remaining the same. Modernity — a world in which most people live in cities, have freedom from clerics and communicate across great distances at low cost — came along about five minutes ago in the history of civilisation. Economic growth was itself an almost unknown phenomenon in the three millennia before 1750. It would be strange if such abrupt and profound change hadn’t had some unintended consequences. The story isn’t phone-induced stress or even low birth rates. The story is that we haven’t experienced much worse.

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