Bahnsen – a money manager and advisor, and frequent guest on Fox Business and CNBC – started out to write a book on the background of the 2008 financial crisis and its causation. He soon found a cancer woven throughout the body politic which culminated in that crisis. It is, to use a biblical reference, as if we lived in the Garden of Eden, ate the fruit of the tree of human failing and have been made to suffer our fate. Bahnsen refreshingly makes us see our nakedness. His point is we are all Adam and Eve.
Bahnsen sees the election of Donald J. Trump, “a bombastic reality TV host” (to use the author’s phrase), not as one predictable policy platform or the other winning the election. Instead it is the result of the candidate weaving together various bogeymen that he declared he could slay and tapping into the sense for many in America that the problems they face are not theirs but something imposed on them from somewhere else.
These bogeymen are an incoherent collection: immigrants, Wall Street, big government, not enough government, police, not enough police, teachers, not enough teachers, etc. This incoherence was reflected back at us by the candidate’s comments, which the media – another bogeyman – pounced on to demonstrate the man’s duplicity. Faced with yet another candidate referred to as “an elite” a portion of the country took a chance on the duplicitous.
The author spends time disassembling the claims against each bogeyman to demonstrate the notion that “if only we did X” is a fallacy. While acknowledging the prima face case against each, he returns to the theme of personal responsibility to determine a means to address the issues presented.
Our setbacks were not due to the immigrant or free trade, it wasn’t Wall Street or government, writes Bahnsen. Instead the granular fault lies in each individual who has apparently eaten from the fruit of the tree that blinds one to believing one can literally act without concern for the consequences. Or believing if conditions change and harm occurs, one can declare fault and move negatively against the element that is identified as the cause of the changed conditions, seeking to hammer the economy or society at large back into the mythic shape it was before, hence the slogan, Make America Great Again.
Another concept Bahnsen examines is the fatalistic idea that there is a large, faceless, wealthy cabal that is responsible for the woes of the common man. Common people take the position, “They owe me,” but also “My own conduct is beyond review.” The point the author makes is that a cabal, if it exists, is made up of individuals, and so is the rest of the country who took out loans they couldn’t repay, ending in the financial crisis.
As one reads through this page turner one cannot help but hear the ring of truth in what the man proposes: We have met the enemy, and the enemy is us. One thing about this book is certain, no matter what part of the political spectrum the reader comes from, he or she will discover some reference that sounds familiar to what all of us have encountered in modern America.
Like many writers recently reflecting on the state of things, many of whom he cites, Bahnsen sees the slide to here only a few generations deep. One such citation is to Charles Murray’s Coming Apart, The State of White America 1960-2010, (2012). This work, heavily annotated with data, along with Bowling Alone, the Collapse and Revival of American Community by Robert Putnam (2001) reflects a culture in collapse starting in 1960 and accelerating through the 1970s until now.
The basic theory is when the Greatest Generation decided the post-WWII peace, the prosperity and stability all of the veterans of that conflict (and survivors of the Great Depression) desperately sought were too constrained, and a cultural revolution followed – fought by their children – during which all prior standards were tossed aside. It was as if (as I am so fond of saying) some “Copernicus Moment” was discovered: the world is no longer flat, and all that we understood as virtue from before that moment is invalid because those prior standards, reflected in appearance, conduct and character, are now considered an imposition on the individual.
Reading this and the other books I asked myself, as a function of blame I suppose, when did that Copernicus Moment occur? Was it the loss of John F. Kennedy, his brother Robert F. Kennedy, or Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.? The publication of the Pentagon papers? Secret wars in Cambodia, or Watergate? Does all this loss usher in the fatalism that no standards held anywhere are valid because retention of values is pointless? Is the ethic in America now one of “every man for himself?” Is this what “freedom” ultimately means?
Coming Apart reflected Murray’s findings that the white people of these United States are failing to retain the founding virtues of the country: industry or vocation, religion, honesty and marriage and family. This thesis is echoed in Crisis of Responsibility, citing the conditions at the founding of our country, that the men and women who made up society at that time launched the American experiment with these foundational characteristics as a given. Bahnsen cites James Madison as saying that without these virtues the democracy will fail.
Consider for example how our current ethic lies far from the generation that fought World War II or were children during the Great Depression. Few, very few of them have bought into the “new think” and instead continue to believe that somehow old values, which one could rely on if consistently adhered to, would mean a relatively stable and healthy life. We, on the other hand, the boomers, have taken the term “freedom” to mean there is no gravity governing our conduct, that Hugh Hefner was a prophet who promised sex without consequence, or that easy credit meant you never had to pay. And the ugly fact is our children learned from our excesses.
The breakdown of the family unit as it has been known for millennia, where values are passed on generation to generation, is featured prominently in this book, citing the best seller written by J. D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy, A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (2016). Vance describes the one thing he had going for him in a fractured family life: grandparents who set standards for him and enforced them. They had the credibility to do so because they lived more or less by these standards themselves. With this foundation he learned to bounce back from adversity. He doesn’t look to the government to help him, he just marshals his resources and talents and applies himself. This ethic is chief among Bahnsen’s tonic for America.
Bahnsen also echoes Murray’s lament that one cannot possibly comment on the decisions of another. The well-educated do not generally have lives of broken families, children born without both parents being married and all the chaos that falls on a child left in that state. The permissive culture which has allowed middle America to decide to abandon those responsibilities is also the culture that prohibits any judgmental commentary. A significant portion of the population have no one like the grandparents of J. D. Vance, willing to set and enforce standards of conduct for themselves or the next generation to emulate.
The size of government is also a bogeyman for Bahnsen, but rather than assign blame to the government, he argues that as citizens we have abandoned our posts. Under the design of the constitution we are all supposed to be engaged in the process. We also are presumed to have in place what Yuval Levin in The Fractured Republic, Renewing American Social Contract in an Age of Individualism (2017) called the “mediating structures” such as church, clubs, and other community organizations which tend to demand a standard of conduct by which the glue of society is held together. Absent these, we degenerate into the savages of Lord of the Flies, and thus government grows and steps in to address the vacuum.
This is destroying the tribe of Americans, and setting up false, expensive and improbable demands on government, particularly those who work in education, to some how “fix it” while the parents exercise their “rights.” If you have any doubts about Murray’s comments about the fragmentation of white America and its imposition on government while reading this in your comfortable bourgeoise home or office, just visit the child support and paternity calendars of your local court one day.
Have you noticed there are no movies made about people dependent upon the government? These are not our heroes. Do we not prefer to hear the story of the resourceful people who set out upon the floodwaters of hurricane Katrina to rescue people in their pirogues without waiting for permission from FEMA or filling out any forms?
I have come to believe that the obligation of each individual citizen is, when asked to rise to the occasion, to do the right thing, their character brought to the surface and made part of a community that is more effective than any government program meant to replace it, by order of magnitude. I found congruence with this theory in Crisis of Responsibility.
Bahnsen is a big fan of school choice. The essential theory is this: allow charter schools, funded by vouchers or tax credits to the parents who pay tuition and you have a responsible parent who has invested in the outcome of the child’s education, much more than those who are stuck with whatever public education is available in his or her district.
After decrying the outrageous debt that students and their families are asked to take on to earn a college degree, Bahnsen goes on to take particular umbrage with how students are not prepared for adult life. He writes:
If a “religion of irresponsibility” is taking hold in our culture today, our college campuses serve as that religion’s church. Basic adult characteristics of resilience, patience, tolerance, respect, humility, acceptance, inquiry and discovery all have been sacrificed at the alter of the “snowflake factor.” My agenda is to repudiate the victimhood culture at all levels, especially in the college years where it is programed into the minds and hearts of our young people.…The vernacular being used – mircoaggressions, safe spaces, trigger warnings – form an easy bridge into a life of victimhood.
Bahnsen also doesn’t buy the idea that immigration has stolen American jobs, pointing out that new people arriving here are new consumers, too. The primary thrust of the chapter is, however, the failure of the American worker to recognize change and adapt like their forefather immigrants to this land.
Bahnsen ends with some remedies:
- Reject defeatism and victimhood even if you have been victimized.
- Completely rethink your perspective on higher education.
- Prepare your children for economic self-reliance.
- Consider re-engaging in the lost world of local politics.
- Flee the cult of home ownership and price appreciation in your own thinking and behavior about real estate.
- Reject the social safety net when you can choose the more challenging but fulfilling path of self-reliance.
- Find joy in production, not consumption.
- View and treat family as the economic building block of society.
- Administer your own personal finances, proactively, defensively, opportunistically and prudently.
- Be a generous, charitable giver.
The last remedy has to do with your own self-respect and engagement in the community. It does not immediately come to mind as a method to restart our culture but giving alms to the poor is biblical history and good for the soul, the ultimate point of Bahnsen’s book as he quotes C. S. Lewis, “We here on earth take up the serious business of heaven.” Perhaps we will not re-create Creation, and the Garden of Eden is probably out of reach. Yet we can have a better society if we expect more of ourselves and each other.