The hyper-emotional reactions to Donald Trump’s election occasioned much commentary about the state of America’s millennials. On college campuses across the country there were “cry-ins,” group “primal screams,” and designated “healing spaces.” The general mood was captured in a tweet from the student body president at American University: “For those who viewed [the election outcome] as unfavorable, anger, sadness, grief, and frustration were brought to the fore. It’s important to note that those feelings are valid and justified. People are scared and people are worried about their futures and their lives.”
Critics derided these displays as the childish outbursts of pampered “snowflakes.” But such traumatized responses to the outcome of an election reflect a much larger cultural shift that has happened over many decades: the change from a tragic view of human life to a therapeutic one. This shift has troubling implications for our political and economic order.
Until the nineteenth century, the tragic understanding of existence was dominant. The ancient Greeks invented a literary genre to express this belief. Like the flawed heroes of Greek tragedy, humans are defined by the permanent, unchanging conditions of life. They are hostages to time, sickness, want, and death; to unforeseen changes and disasters; to a capricious, harsh natural world; and, most importantly, to their own destructive impulses and passions that their minds can only sporadically control.
A classic expression of the tragic vision can be found in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. Describing the horrors of the revolutions the war sparked throughout the Greek world, he writes, “The sufferings which revolution entailed upon the cities were many and terrible, such as have occurred and always will occur as long as the nature of mankind remains the same,” for war confronts people with “imperious necessities” and “so proves a rough master that brings most men’s characters to a level with their fortunes.”
Similarly, Christianity put a flawed humanity at the center of its theology. Because of the Fall, we are all born prone to sin, incapable on our own of renewing our lost spiritual connection to God. As the most influential theologian of eighteenth-century America, Jonathan Edwards, put it, “the innate sinful depravity of the heart” and the “state of man’s nature, that disposition of the mind, is to be looked upon as evil and pernicious” and “tends to extremely pernicious consequences.” Only salvation through Christ can create true happiness, that of the soul reunited with God. In the fallen world, however, the same tragic conditions of existence will continue until the second coming of Christ and the final judgment.
This belief began to weaken with the rise of science and the spectacular improvements of human life it occasioned, beginning in the nineteenth century. Advances in medicine, transportation, sanitation, and the production of food lessened and in some cases eliminated the perennial physical miseries of human existence like disease and malnutrition. This encouraged a belief that new knowledge and technologies could likewise be discovered to improve minds and social institutions as well. Human misery was now believed to spring not from our flawed human nature and choices, but from harmful beliefs embedded in religion, tradition, and unjust social and political orders.
Thus the therapeutic view was born, nurtured by the “human sciences” such as psychology and sociology, and confident that progress would eventually eliminate even our private psychic traumas and subjective discontents, the causes of which lay in the social environment and could there be uprooted. The philosopher and Social Darwinist Herbert Spencer articulated this optimism at the end of the nineteenth century: “Progress is not an accident, but a necessity. Surely must evil and immorality disappear; surely must men become perfect.”
In contrast, however, our political order as enshrined in the Constitution was built on the older tragic understanding of human nature. The Founders particularly feared how power might further corrupt an already flawed human nature. John Adams, in his influential 1787 study Defense of the Constitutions, acknowledged the possibility of generosity and kindness in men, “yet every moral theorist will admit the selfish passions in the generality of men to be the strongest. There are few who love the public better than themselves . . . Self-interest, private avidity, ambition, and avarice will exist in every state of society, and under every form of government.”
Nor could man’s depraved nature be permanently improved. Driven by their flaws, people will always form what James Madison in Federalist 10 called “factions” based on mutual “passions and interests,” and thus will always strive to acquire more power at the expense of other factions. This tendency to aggrandize power, Madison says, is “sown in the nature of man,” never to be eliminated, but only controlled and limited by dividing, checking, and balancing the three branches of the federal government. In this way the freedom of the citizens could be preserved and tyranny avoided, the Founders’ most important goal.
Our free-market capitalist economic order likewise is grounded in a tragic view of life. Economist Joseph Schumpeter said the “essential fact” of capitalism was “creative destruction.” Economist historians W. Michael Cox and Richard Alm describe this process and its costs: “lost jobs, ruined companies, and vanishing industries are inherent parts of the growth system.” However, “A society cannot reap the rewards of creative destruction,” they continue, “without accepting that some individuals might be worse off, not just in the short term, but perhaps forever . . . Capitalism’s gain and pain are inextricably linked.” As Cox and Alm point out, the improvements in transportation sparked by the internal-combustion engine, for example, destroyed whole industries such as carriage and harness manufacturers and blacksmiths.
Capitalism, then, reveals how inequalities in talent, brains, virtue, and luck lead to economic winners and losers. But a dynamic capitalism gives people the freedom and opportunity to rise as far as their abilities can take them, rather than being stymied by static castes, guilds, and classes.
In contrast, the rise of progressivism and collectivist economies in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries reflected the therapeutic vision of a world free of the tragic constants acknowledged by the Founders and free-market economies. In the late nineteenth century, the creation of human sciences persuaded the first progressives that human nature could be improved. In 1914, the progressive journalist Walter Lippmann discarded the idea that human nature is fixed. Rather, we must “devise its social organizations, alter its tools, formulate its method, educate and control it.” Such progress is now possible, Lippmann continues, because of “the great triumph of modern psychology and its growing capacity for penetrating to the desires that govern human thought.” The influential progressive theorist Herbert Croly likewise asserted that a “better future would derive from the beneficent activities of expert social engineers who would bring to the service of social ideals all the technical resources which research could discover.”
The practical means for achieving this transformation were set out by Woodrow Wilson, who felt the Constitution’s balance of powers was made obsolete by this new knowledge. Government must now follow the “Darwinian principle,” he wrote, of organic development guided by the rationally organized improvement of people and society. This requires a more powerful executive branch overseeing a centralized network of bureaus and agencies “of skilled, economical administration” comprising the “hundreds who are wise” who will guide the thousands who are “selfish, ignorant, timid, stubborn, or foolish,” wrote Wilson. Technocrats will replace the diverse people and the sovereign states as the primary determiners of public policy and action. Discarded was the Founders’ distrust of concentrated power whether wielded by the majority or by an elite no less vulnerable to the “encroaching nature” of power that necessarily diminishes political freedom.
Similarly, the idea that all problems can be solved by knowledge and technology would not accept as inevitable the necessary costs of capitalism’s “creative destruction.” In Marxist, socialist, and progressive economic theories, equality of opportunity was inadequate. Now equality of outcome was demanded, for no one should be left to feel inadequate or inferior to those of greater talent or luck who unfairly monopolize wealth. Government began to interfere in the market, attempting to control its workings through laws and regulations in order to create more egalitarian outcomes and eliminate the “various and unequal distribution of property,” as Madison described what we call “income inequality.” But our complaints about income inequality spring not from the tragic reality that some people are not as smart, hard-working, or lucky as others, but from unjust economic and social structures. These need to be corrected by the technocratic elite through coercive federal agencies and their rules.
The trend over the last century has been away from the Constitutional order and the free-market economy. Ironically, despite greater regulations and dirigiste policies that have inhibited growth, enormous wealth has still been created and distributed, and new technologies developed. Unfortunately, this improvement fosters the illusion that we have transcended the tragic constants of human history, and now can afford to believe that even greater improvement should take place. Today, being well-fed, entertained, healthy, and free to an extent unprecedented in history is not enough. We must always be happy and pleased with ourselves, our lives free from challenge and strife and anything, including the consequences of our own free actions, that disturbs our self-regard. If we aren’t, then we look to government power or psychological interventions to correct this injustice.
The “snowflake” phenomenon on our college campuses is just one example of this widespread belief, the malign effects of which extend far beyond the millennial generation. Apart from the damage to our characters, autonomy, freedom, and sense of responsibility for our actions, the therapeutic vision runs counter to the foundations of our political and economic order. We can see the cost to the former in the reduction of our freedoms caused by political correctness and the laws defending the sensibilities and feelings of “protected” classes. The anxiety not to cause offense leads to censorship both formal and internalized, which compromises our First Amendment right to free speech without which a democracy cannot function. And the demand to meet ever escalating standards of well-being and comfort by redistributing wealth has contributed to sluggish economic growth, the unsustainable expense of social welfare entitlements, and the $20 trillion in debt on track to bankrupt the country.
The question we all face is whether the people and their elected leaders can turn back from a failing therapeutic utopianism, and accept once again the tragic limits to human existence that the foundations of our political and economic structures once acknowledged.