Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.
--C.S. Lewis--

Monday, December 15, 2008

I Don't Buy It

Since the financial crisis began, I've heard a lot of talk about a rediscovery of traditional economic restraint. The idea boils down to the thesis that, as Americans have to come to terms with empty wallets and reluctant lenders, they will rediscover things like prudence, the value of non-tangible assets, and perhaps even find a renewed respect for values like family, health, and God. The speculations about the economic downturn and it's aftereffects range from the fearful to the hopeful to the hopeful-tinged-with-a-little-sanctimony-for-getting-there-first.

Maybe I'm not the best person to evaluate such a potential sea-change in sentiment. While we are far from the crunchy-con ideal of growing our own food and weaving our own clothing, we are also just as far from the stereotypical consumption-driven American household. Both of us grew up in relatively modest financial surroundings, and we manage our finances with an eye towards our responsibilities to God and a future when we can afford to be a one-income household raising children. (Constantly looking for ways to drop down to one income is a pretty good method for assuring that you'll avoid the trap of consumerism in spite of yourself.) Couple this with the relative job security that both of us enjoy, and I can't really put myself in the place of someone who is staring at the combination of lost income and mounting credit card debt, or the place of a man used to buying the affection of his family with pricey gifts. However, having said all of that, I get the same feeling when listening to all of this talk of a renewed restraint that I got when listening to all of the unity talk after 9-11. For those who may not remember, let's recap.

9-11 came right on the heels of a disputed election, and the impeachment of a sitting president that degenerated into little more than arguments about blue dresses and creative uses for cigars. Whatever your opinion on the merits of the impeachment and election lawsuits, both sides can agree that it was an unhappy time in American politics. Then came a terrible event, but with it, a silver lining. Suddenly the "selected not elected" president had a 90% approval rating, red states loved New Yorkers, Democrats were hugging Republicans, and lions were sleeping with lambs. Unless you were one of that rare breed of curmudgeon who distrust politics without conflict, this situation seemed far more desirable than what preceded it. Countless columns were written about a "new era" in politics. And yet, I could never shed the feeling that it would not last. Sure enough, just fast forward to the 2004 election. Less than three full years later, many of the same columnists were wringing their hands about "Swift-boating" and the dirtiest election in American history. Whether you blame one side or the other, the unity clearly did not last.

Similarly, I have my doubts as to whether or not the fallout from the financial crisis will be any more sustained than the crisis itself. When the stock market starts climbing again, whether that happens in one year, or twenty, will the people who are currently feeling so humbled again think of themselves as masters of the universe? Will they think twice before buying a bigger house than they need or can afford? Only time will tell, but I for one am not betting on a kinder and less consumerist society.