As I compose this, a miracle is happening around me. I am flying back to Missouri after a week in my native Pacific Northwest. This is a round-trip Oregon Trail, without the deaths from dysentery, cholera, snakebite, or drowning while fording a river.
This direct flight from Portland to St. Louis takes less than four hours to travel 2,000 miles, for a price of just under $200. It is an affordable miracle (slightly less-affordable but more luxurious options are also available), and even the basic options are marvelous. Step into a climate-controlled metal tube filled with seats, settle in, and a few hours later step out thousands of miles away. Emperors, priests, and god-kings never had it so good. Julius Caesar travelled at the speed and with the smell of horse.
This trip contains many more wonders. In my pocket is a communication device filled with music, books, and other knowledge and entertainment. In my backpack is a similar device with a larger display to better facilitates work and leisure. I can start writing in the air and finish while sitting comfortably at home. For a small fee, I can connect to the internet in-transit.
Upon landing, I am able to immediately talk to my wife, who is miles away. She arrives to pick me up shortly after I collect my luggage. While waiting at the carousel, I watched some baseball on my phone, live-streamed from the East Coast — another miracle. We head home in a comfortable, air-conditioned vehicle that easily travels at speeds impossible for nearly all of human history.
At home, there are many more miracles: hot and cold running water on demand, flush toilets, climate control, light with a flick of a switch, and appliances to cook and clean and keep food cold. There is much more. For education, edification, and entertainment there are books and musical instruments and effectively endless electronic images and information.
None of this is out of the ordinary. These are the current norms of middle-class American life, and even the relatively poor enjoy many of these comforts. Thrift stores like Goodwill now turn down old tube TVs: apparently, these days even the poor only buy flat-screens.
But the dramatic decline in absolute poverty in our nation (and worldwide) does not eliminate relative poverty or the human capacity for boredom. Marvels become commonplace and are obscured by minor indignities (hi there, TSA!) and by small discomforts such as folding my six-foot frame into an airplane seat.
Envy still gnaws at us, even amidst plentitude. The wonder of travelling thousands of miles in a few hours is lost as we eye those enjoying the benefits in first class, or even the extra legroom of an exit row. Devices that were a wonder a few years ago become a source of discontent when compared to the latest model.
Furthermore, comfort and convenience do not sate our appetites for long, nor can they save our souls. The wealth and technological prowess of our age are, as Jonah Goldberg’s recent book reminded us, are an anomaly in human history, but this wealth too often coincides with cultural and spiritual poverty. Monetary capital does not necessarily preserve social capital, and our nation’s prosperity is undermined by the hollowing out of families, churches, and communities.
This is why socialism, at least in name, is having a recrudescence in the United States. We have no crisis in our political economy that makes socialism qua socialism seem necessary or plausible, and hardly anyone, and certainly not socialists, really cares about the endless deficit spending that will eventually precipitate a real crisis. Our nation’s widely shared material prosperity exceeds our ancestors’ wildest dreams. But there is a crisis in our souls that makes a different approach to politics appealing.
The surge in socialism’s popularity among young Americans has little to do with the actual merits (or demerits) of the system, or even what it actually entails. Most seem to think it means a larger welfare state and taxing “the rich” a bit more. Rather, socialism’s allure is due to the families that are broken, the communities that are atomized, and the churches that are empty — often, sadly, because they betrayed their responsibilities to God and man.
The needs and desires that are met only by faith, family, and friendship are still part of the human condition. The current half-baked socialist revival is a category error, as it attempts a political and economic solution to a cultural and spiritual problem. But part of our crisis is the loss of the ability to think clearly about such matters, as exemplified by a generation that relies on the Harry Potter books for a shared moral language. This poverty of moral imagination and expression illuminates the spiritual and cultural desolation that prior generations created and bequeathed to their children.
As people seek a political solution for their spiritual and psychological dismay and distress, we see pathologies that used to afflict religious entities become manifest in politics. The sudden popularity of ersatz socialism is not because it offers a realistic plan of improvement, but because it sounds fair and compassionate while promising to relieve anxiety over economic uncertainty. That socialism will deliver on none of these promises is beside the point.
The concerns and anxieties that beset our culture will not be addressed only by reminders of material abundance provided by free market economics. Man does not live on technological miracles alone. Wealth will not satisfy us and assuage our anxieties; affordable airfare and iPhones will not save our souls. But as we look for that which will, we must remember the bounty lavished upon us. Our unhappiness rarely results from real material deprivation, and a socialist redistribution will do little to increase the sum of human happiness.
Only by bearing our material blessings in mind will we be able to think clearly about our desires for cultural, relational, and spiritual satisfaction.