that's so bourgeois
America’s Middle-Class Myopia

How our cultural fixation on the welfare of the middle class blinds us to a deeper view of human freedom and flourishing.

Published on: July 20, 2014
Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College and writes for the Postmodern Conservative blog at National Review.
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  • PJ_K

    We should be turned off when our politicians use the adjective “middle class” for everything good: jobs, tax cuts, prosperity… Everybody is supposed to be middle class– from those barely getting by to those making a few hundred thousand, If almost everybody is middle class, the term loses any meaning.

  • Stacy Garvey

    Our lives are controlled by the administrative state – some agency deems what is and is not allowable. Food, drugs, schools, banks, careers, criminal justice, are all “regulated” for our own good, or so we’re told. These agencies are bloated, corrupted and incompetent yet we still pretend they are legitimate. Most were long ago co-opted by the industries they supposedly regulate. They grow bigger each year and less accountable. The evil trifecta of crony big business (not to be mistaken with free markets – they’re not the same thing), government, and unionism has nearly destroyed this country.
    If we are experiencing a libertarian moment, and I doubt it, it’s because we’re surrounded by complete incompetence and corruption and it’s impossible to remain blind.

    • stefanstackhouse

      The rhetoric that I hear might be libertarian, but the reality that I see is unionism being starved to death, government harnessed, and crony big business in the saddle.

  • mgoodfel

    As a baby boomer myself (I’m 55) I’m struck by how much commentary from both left and right has this nostalgic tone about the past, and a sort of confused “how did this happen?” attitude towards the present. And most of it is trying to figure out how to return things to some past ideal.

    It’s not going to happen, and there is no one in control who could make it happen. It would be a better use of your time to try and decide what you want, find people who share your goals, and use the latest tools to push for that.

    I also think this idea that rampant libertarianism or the victory of capitalism is causing these changes is wrong. The country still seems very unified in its love of government programs, and horrified at the less regulated society that libertarians would recommend.

    Unions didn’t disappear because of cultural or regulatory changes (they are still very healthy in the public sector.) They disappeared from the private sector because they weren’t sustainable. They didn’t create middle class prosperity in the 1950s — they lived off of it.

    Similarly, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and ObamaCare are not going to get cut back due to some free market consensus. They are going to get reformed because we will run out of money as the boomers all retire and take their pensions (public and private.)

    The middle class lifestyle is under threat for much of the population because of globalization, robotics and software automating jobs. The combination of cheap workers in the rest of the world and an internet to bring them to U.S. customers will affect white collar jobs as well.

    The internet is still grinding its way through the media industries. If MOOCs for college education or something similar for home-schooled K-12 get off the ground, the screaming from educational institutions will be earsplitting.

    And what do you want to do about all of this? You want the Google employees to go to church with the mailmen and the construction workers? Would that change anything? You want them to set a better social example and scold anyone who drops out of school or has a kid out of wedlock? As if anyone would accept scolding from them? You want computers to disappear, or China to implode so that all the old jobs come back?

    Are there forward looking editorials out there that push for achievable goals? I’m not seeing much of that.

    • stefanstackhouse

      Good post, on target in just about every paragraph. You get what most of the population doesn’t.

      What can be done about all of this? I think it is a vain hope to think that either the elites (the “winners” of this whole story) or the government that they have bought and paid for is going to be a source of serious or effective help for those in the lower half or lower two-thirds of the income or wealth distributions. If the people who are finding themselves on the loser’s side of the distribution curve want any help, they are going to have to help themselves. The best we can possibly hope for from the elite winners or their (notice I don’t say “our”, as it no longer is really ours) government is to stop getting so much in our way – and I don’t really hold out very much hope even for that.

      I posted a few suggestions below on the types of things that might be done by and for the losing majority in order to cope with and adapt to the reality of declining standards of living. The sooner we give up denying reality and start to deal with it, the better off we will be. You are right that we are not going to be returning to that nostalgic past, unless you have some nostalgia for the Great Depression years. The fate of the non-elite American people is to get poorer, and the sooner that they pull together with their neighbors and figure out how to make the most of this bad situation, the better off they will be. Pulling together with their neighbors in voluntary cooperative community efforts – a grass-roots, bottom-up approach – will yield far better results than will any top-down paternalistic approach that might be attempted by the elite meritocracy and their government. If most of us can’t enjoy most of the wealth of a fabulously wealthy society, at least give us the dignity of having some control over our own poor lives.

  • FriendlyGoat

    1) Tax-Cut Republicans never cared about either abortion or gay marriage except to the extent, in the past, those issues could be used to attract extraneous votes to win elections for tax-cutters If “young” Democrats think abortion and gay marriage are THE important issues, they are buffoons—-since tax cuts have killed and are killing their “young” jobs. Happily win a couple of “social issues”, but blindly lose your whole generation’s personal economics? How profoundly stupid!

    2) A country of self-identified middle-class folks who tolerate “vast disparities of wealth” while clinging to a “rough equality of hope” is a dumb country. If we have any sense we will repeal “PowerBall and MegaMillions and reinstate the taxes the “greatest generation” sensibly gave us back when Ronald Reagan was more effectively serving the country by doing movies and Death Valley Days.

    3) No one with the slightest understanding of high-speed trading can patiently listen to drivel about America becoming a “meritocracy based on productivity”.
    No one with a clear-eyed view of employment-at-will can tolerate such nonsense very well either

    4) LeAnn Womack had a country song several years ago in which she sang of being “Above the below, and below the upper—-I’m stuck in the middle where money gets tight,…..” She described tens of millions of people who are losing the game FAST—–most without any clue as to why. They will be mercilessly screwed over until they get tired of being mercilessly screwed over.

    • Anthony

      Instructive 2nd to last sentence and well said.

    • Corlyss

      Oy vey!

    • Thirdsyphon

      That song was actually by Jo Dee Messina, but your post is otherwise spot-on.

  • Anthony

    A major inference enveloping essay (author’s thrust) is what some public intellectuals have labeled “crisis of values”. The morality of capitalism has won – sophisticated individualism and true meritocracy; what does it all mean in a theoretical Democratic Republic? Therein lies root of essay’s explication (WRM has labeled it disintermediation et al).

    The author in round about manner asks reader to consider American democracy in 21st century globalized context and weigh how this democracy sustains its 300 million plus citizens going forward while enduring both structural and socio-economic changes. The unasked question within essay is whether a society of markets, laws, theoretical individual freedoms, elections, etc. are enough given “relational” challenges induced by economic structural changes domestically over last 40 years. The author implies answer lies not in libertarianism nor in progressivism/conservatism, but perhaps in examining whether, what de Tocqueville assumed, an ethos of relational responsibility still has a meaningful place in the interstices of quasi meritocratic lauded 21st century America.

    To me, author’s middle class covering masks essential concern: has American Democracy 238 years later squandered its conception of civic virtue as technological change and global challenges developed over the course of several decades. Does capitalism actually have a morality? The American economy (sans meritocratic embellishment) increasingly serves whom? Free beings need perhaps to conceive the idea of a good society in the 21st century and help to find a creative path toward it. A recommendation not to be left to elites, politicians, businessmen, academicians, et al.

  • Duperray

    “The Democrats’ view is that anyone who dissents on the trending position on these cultural issues is a religious fanatic driven by irrational animosity. ”
    This is nazi or “ayatholesque”. Where is now the free opinion, Liberty, freedom?

  • stefanstackhouse

    “Meritocracy”? Well, I have no doubt that the vast majority of people in the top layer at least started out that way. Anyone who thinks that knowing the right people and being in the right place at the right time has nothing to do with any of it, however, has no acquaintance with reality. Furthermore, it would be fine if the meritocrats got and kept their wealth solely due to their own efforts at playing on a level field. We all know that isn’t the way it is. Once they make it big enough to have some serious money to play with (and some serious money to lose), more than a little bit of it ends up in the pockets of politicians, used to get them the best government that money can buy. The resultant tilting of the playing field in their favor has everything to do with the rich getting richer, but has absolutely nothing at all to do with merit.

    This doesn’t mean that I am advocating soak-the-rich redistributionism. I’m not. I am suggesting, however, that those with a lot of money also have a lot to lose, and it is in their interest to be carrying the bulk of the burden of supporting and sustaining the civilization and system of government from which that wealth comes from. Furthermore, if they won’t pay the bills, who will? They are the only ones who really can afford the cost of sustaining our system of government, even if we cut back on the neo-imperialist overextension and on some of the entitlements.

  • stefanstackhouse

    As for the majority of our population – the marginally productive or unproductive types – we had best start giving serious thought about how we can make it possible for these people who will be unable to earn very much money to live much more cheaply than has recently been the case in the US.

    For example, it is going to become increasingly difficult for the lower 60-85% of the population to afford to own not just an exurban McMansion, but any sort of single family detached home just about anywhere in the US. Most countries with a lower standard of living than ours must house the bulk of their population in smaller, more inexpensive, and more densely packed together housing units – unless, of course, their people end up having to house themselves in mud or bamboo huts, or in plywood, tin, and cardboard shacks in the favelas. With any luck and the right sort of effort, most of our people could end up in small, dense, multi-family units that many of them might actually even be able to own in a cooperative or condominium form, thus leaving them with at least some meaningful control over their lives.

    Similarly with transportation. The majority of the population is going to find automobile ownership to be increasingly unaffordable. The answer is not to give them the money to buy a car, but to make it possible for people who can’t afford cars to still be able to get to where they need to go. Better mass transit is part of the answer, and will become more economically viable as we move from sprawling exurbs to more densely packed settlement patterns. This is not likely to happen as long as mass transit is a socialistic government project, however; nor is it likely with a corporate-owned mass transit system that is only interested in skimming off the profitable cream while cutting its losses against those who are most dependent. A mass transit industry where each local system is actually owned cooperatively by the riders (and governed by a board directly elected by them) offers the best promise of actually striking an efficient balance between operating costs, fare levels, and the quality, reliability, and extent of service. Combine with this an urban street system that is more friendly toward a wider mix of transportation modes, including pedestrians, bicycles, and smaller, more affordable and efficient micro-cars, and we’ll have a transportation that might actually work for most of the non-elite population.

    The elites will, of course, be able to get the best medical care that money can buy. Most of the population will not be able to afford anything that comes close to that. How to deliver the health care that the bulk of the population affords at an inexpensive cost that they can afford? The answer is going to have to include some form of managed care, but neither a system where government bureaucrats or profit-maximizing corporate insurers are doing the managing is going to work in the best interests of the majority of the people. A system where the patients themselves have ultimate say over the management protocols through some form of patient-owned HMO cooperatives is going to be the best answer. These will also have the advantage of replacing our fee-for-service system with salaried health care providers. This is the practical answer, and the ideologies of both the left and right are going to have to eventually be discarded if we want to avoid having an uncared-for population that becomes the breeding ground for massive epidemics.

    Similar approaches can be taken for every other major category of household expenditure. Life is going to change for the vast majority of what are presently middle-class Americans because it is going to have to change. We – both individually and nationally – cannot afford for it not to change.

  • Don’t remember

    Poverty in America Land of the Free:

  • Major914

    “…insofar as we have trouble understanding people as more than free beings who work…being too fixed in this orientation seems to threaten the economic and relational conditions required to be a country united by the shared hopes and values of free beings.”

    I would push all of this one small step for Neil Armstrong further by pointing out that misconception of persons is of a piece with its concomitant societal ill of voluntarily misconceiving markets.

    The indestructible happiness of the market worshippers–where none of the lunches are free, but the markets are–is intoxication resulting from an inversion of values. Unless a right conception of the market limits it to never more than a subordinate role–a means to a means, rather than a means to an end or an end in itself–then persons are as if reduced to temporal cogs in a semi-mystical meta-machine.

    Being united by shared hopes and values would include among its prerequisites the adequate, and adequately shared, defining not just of persons alone, but also of institutions and forms which significantly involve them.

  • WalkingHorse

    This piece is fascinating in that it is written from the viewpoint of people who never leave the comforts of the urban cocoon, an exquisitely fragile social construct. One may be forgiven for thinking it will be interesting to observe from a safe distance what happens when the secular presumptions underlying this piece are invalidated.

  • StarTripper

    Crony capitalism has won, not capitalism. The “middle class” is lauded by politicians just like the “family farmer” and both are just as rare. While farm policy helps out Farmer Archer-Daniels-Midland, banking and economic policy helps out Wall Street banks. And the middle class can either join the poor and go on welfare or they can get a Government job. This is the reality of America today and both parties are quite happy to keep the sham going.

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