National Review: Hard Times and Liberalism’s Dream of a Painless World
In his devotion to the pursuit of happiness, modern man has forgotten how to suffer.
During hard times, it is only natural that we should spend a good deal of time blaming the villains. For the Left, the authors of the present discontents are (a) President Bush, and (b) the free market. Those on the Right finger (a) politicians who favor tax-and-spend policies that will ensure continued stagnation, and (b) bankers who benefit from self-serving regulation that not only insulates them from the consequences of their greed and stupidity but actually rewards them for it with taxpayer-subsidized bailouts.
Reasonable though our preoccupation with the assignment of blame is, it has obscured a deeper problem that the depressed economy has brought to light. In his devotion to the pursuit of happiness, modern man has forgotten how to suffer.
The dream of a painless world is the great illusion of liberalism. Classical liberalism, it is true, never promised to make men happier; it promised only to make them richer. Adam Smith argued that we deceive ourselves when we suppose that those material luxuries that we associate with happiness are “worth all the toil and anxiety which we are so apt to bestow” on their attainment. Material wealth is good, Smith says, not because it makes us permanently happier, but because it enables us to dispense, in some measure, with physical and corporeal miseries (hunger, squalor, disease, and the like). In their place we have psychological and spiritual debilities. The primitive man famishes; the civilized man despairs ...
... The old Western conception of suffering as a necessary and intrinsic part of the human condition is remote from the modern liberal’s belief that it is a freakish deviation from the rightful order of things. Nowhere is the callowness of the liberal philosophy more evident than in its tendency to look upon ever-larger swaths of human suffering as grievances from which people have a “right” to be exempt.
The same superficiality is found in the liberal tendency to regard suffering as an exclusively material and physiological condition, one that can be overcome with exclusively material and physiological remedies. In reality, there is a residuum of suffering for which there is no material or physiological cure; such suffering is a spiritual or existential condition that can be overcome only through spiritual travail. “Depression” is a condition modern liberalism has invented to justify modern man’s inability to accept such travail. A sufferer in spirit must seek a spiritual remedy; but persuading himself that he is merely “depressed,” the modern sufferer vainly seeks a pharmaceutical antidote, and will doubtless soon be discovered to have an inalienable right to one. Only he must remember to call his health-care professional if after swallowing the pill he has thoughts of violence, suicide, or mass murder. ...