David Brooks thinks we need to eschew conspicuous consumption.
Centuries ago, historians came up with a classic theory to explain the rise and decline of nations. The theory was that great nations start out tough-minded and energetic. Toughness and energy lead to wealth and power. Wealth and power lead to affluence and luxury. Affluence and luxury lead to decadence, corruption and decline.
“Human nature, in no form of it, could ever bear prosperity,” John Adams wrote in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, warning against the coming corruption of his country.
Yet despite its amazing wealth, the United States has generally remained immune to this cycle. American living standards surpassed European living standards as early as 1740. But in the U.S., affluence did not lead to indulgence and decline.
If there is to be a movement to restore economic values, it will have to cut across the current taxonomies. Its goal will be to make the U.S. again a producer economy, not a consumer economy. It will champion a return to financial self-restraint, large and small.
It will have to take on what you might call the lobbyist ethos — the righteous conviction held by everybody from AARP to the agribusinesses that their groups are entitled to every possible appropriation, regardless of the larger public cost. It will have to take on the self-indulgent popular demand for low taxes and high spending.
A crusade for economic self-restraint would have to rearrange the current alliances and embrace policies like energy taxes and spending cuts that are now deemed politically impossible. But this sort of moral revival is what the country actually needs.
Mr. Brooks doesn’t say it, but it doesn’t require a deep reading of economic history to note that most of the economic catastrophes that have occurred in America were the result of greed and excess on the part of the people in charge of the economy, i.e. the rich and — by nature — the conservatives, and the people hardest hit have been the poor. Yet every attempt to right those wrongs has been met with great resistance by the perpetrators — what are you, some kind of socialist?