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The question that Mollie poses in her post Why are Conservatives Happier? is fundamental. Responding to it requires, alas, more than two hundred words.
Aristotle suggests that happiness (eudaimonia) derives from activity — i.e., from a proper use of our faculties. Political conservatives blessed with marriage and children tend to be-hard-working and to take pleasure both in the services they perform through their work and in using their earnings to support their spouses and rear and educate their offspring.
Before we married, my wife and I discussed at length how many children we should have. At the time, I remember asking my friends whether they thought that they had had too many children. Every single one of them looked at me with understandable horror and said, in emphatic terms, no. Then, when I asked whether they wished that they had had more, they all fell silent for a moment and grew wistful, and every single one of them responded that, yes, they wished that they had had one more child. I believe that they would have said the same thing had they had ten more.
It costs roughly $250,000 to rear a child in today’s society; college tuition is on top of that. This suggests that the happiest Americans may be those who, at the end of the day, have the least disposable income. That, if true, is really telling. It suggests that it is not what we have that makes us happy. It is what we do with what we have.
I do not mean to say that money does not matter. It does, and Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics acknowledges as much. But he treats wealth not as an end in itself. He speaks of it as equipment (paraskeue). To pursue certain worthy ends, one needs such equipment, and those who understand wealth in this fashion pursue it for the purpose of achieving certain worthy ends.
What distinguishes conservatives from liberals today is chiefly our appreciation for the ends to which, upon reflection, we realize that nature and nature’s God direct us. My generation of liberals and those who came after that generation tend to be libertines — that is, they tend to be aimless, more or less mindless consumers. Think of the nihilist message conveyed by Seinfeld and Sex and the City, and you will grasp what we I mean. We Boomers were the first generation in American history to be self-righteous about our vices, and we and our successors over the last forty years have, in pursuing our less salubrious pleasures, summarily snuffed out more than fifty million innocent lives.
Take that number, turn it over in your mind, digest its implications, and consider what it says about this country and its priorities in what has been aptly called the Age of Obama. If we are ever to turn our country around, we will have to find a way to instruct liberals and “moderates” (which is to say, liberals lacking all conviction) in what it is that makes them so miserable and in what it is that produces eudaimonia.
Our problems are not first and foremost technical problems. Better management is no doubt necessary. But it will not set us straight. At best, it will delay the day of reckoning. Rearranging the deck chairs might have improved life on the Titanic, but it would not have saved the ship. At the deepest level, our problems are spiritual and moral. They have to do with the direction in which we are tending.
Government programs, as such, cannot directly address these problems. It is not within our power to make men good; and, if we tried to do so, we would, like helicopter parents, do them untold harm.
We can, however, with relative ease, corrupt our fellow citizens — for, like all human beings, they can resolutely stand up to anything . . . other than temptation. Straight, blunt talk from the top about the virtues of hard work, self-reliance, chastity, marriage, family, and a respect for the rights of the unborn — if matched with a principled, systematic repeal of government programs and regulations that subvert these virtues — could do no end of good.
What George Herbert Walker Bush contemptuously eschewed as “the vision thing” is, in fact, a central requirement of American political life. At the deepest level, what is at stake in the election that will be held in November is not a change of management but our way of life.
For all of their faults, which are legion, Barack Obama and the Democrats understand this. Do the Republicans even have a clue?