How will an Obama Administration justify a comprehensive return to Big Government? For starters it may bring up the controversial new theory that man is evolutionarily incapable of looking after himself and needs bureaucrats to tie his metaphorical shoelaces.
The theory is the brainchild of Peter Whybrow, head of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Behavior at UCLA, and author of American Mania: When More Is Not Enough. Our behavioral infantilism goes back to a time when primitive man stalked the African savanna, Whybrow says, when the need for instant gratification was a survival mechanism hardwired into our brains. Prehistoric man, it seems, suffered from poor impulse control, and adapted to a scarcity of food by instantly gratifying his every need. “We were designed to run for our supper,” he says, “and if you caught it you ate it.” We’re still designed that way. In other words, you can take the man out of the savanna, but not the savanna out of the man.
Though he is neither anthropologist nor archaeologist, Whybrow believes his theory is key to understanding how we got into the current financial mess, and once we accept his idea that we are addicted to abundance, that we are on a “runaway train of self interest,” you can see how the subprime mortgage fiasco was all but inevitable.
Our inability to resist the impulse for instant gratification, coupled with too easy credit and the loss of social restraints (the old Protestant ethic), proved our undoing. True, credit allows many of us to purchase homes and automobiles and attend college and enjoy the good life. But too many of us lack individual responsibility and buy lots of junk and then cannot pay our bills (sometimes have no intention of paying our bills). Such people are denied the American Dream, therefore the system is rotten and needs a government fix. Basically, Whybrow wants government to take over the role the church and the family once fulfilled, that of imposing “social restraints,” otherwise known as “regulations.”
THERE SEEMS TO BE at least one major flaw in this theory. A little research into Pre-Columbian Indian cultures would have shown that — far from never thinking about the morrow — hunter-gatherers stored foods to see them through the lean, hard times. If anything, the tribes that practiced instant gratification would have become quickly extinct.
Contrary to Whybrow’s thesis, the desire for instant gratification is a relatively new development. Today’s profligate lifestyle — building up massive debt and a reliance on charity — is a result of the recent growth of the middle class and its abandonment of Protestant values, coupled with the expectation that government will always be there to bail us out when we behave imprudently. In my own lifetime, charity and massive debt were still frowned upon. Post-World War II generations, however, have been overly pampered and spoiled, and failed to learn the culture of thrift from their Depression-era parents. Their superficial guilt-feelings made charity acceptable, first for other people, then for all. Shame was okay if it was caused by the remote actions of distant ancestors or ancient regimes, but there was no need to feel ashamed of anything you yourself did no matter how reckless, stupid, or immoral. Government feeds (and grows) on such impulsive behavior. As Kenneth Minogue writes: “low morals amount to giving in to impulse, and impulsiveness soon lands one in the arms of the bureaucracy.” We all pay in lost liberty for the reckless behavior of a few “impulsives.”
Americans, Whybrow concludes, are genetically indisposed to responsible behavior and thus evolutionarily unsuited for The American Dream. He may be right if your definition of the American Dream is perfect equality or owning three television sets. But for the rest of us, The American Dream is about having the opportunity to succeed, with each generation doing better than the previous one, if it is willing to work for it. If anything, the past 200 years are proof that we are capable of deferring our own happiness for the sake of our children and our children’s children.
There does seem to be a weird, old-fashioned morality at play not only in society but in the free market. When we get too far removed from the traditional, Calvinist ethos, when economic man chooses to live recklessly, impulsively, and without personal responsibility, some correction inevitably comes along to set us back on the straight and narrow. It’s all part of the learning process. Centuries ago, Genevans decided they would no longer accept the social restraints imposed on them by Calvin’s theocracy, and that enlightened men were capable of restraining themselves. I wonder if today’s American will consider Obama’s bureaucracy and have a similar reaction?