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Building A Culture of Self Reliance and Responsibility

Ari Blask
August 2017

Senator Ben Sasse and the American Enterprise Institute’s Charles Murray sat down on Tuesday July 25th for a Pizza, Pints, and Policy discussion on self-reliance and responsibility in American culture. The event brought together two experts on that topic. Senator Sasse is the recent author of the critically acclaimed book, The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming of Age Crisis and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self Reliance. Murray has been one of the country’s leading scholars of culture and social policy for decades, and is the author of the 2010 bestseller Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010.

The Vanishing Adult in Context

Murray and Sasse discussed how the problem of perpetual adolescence identified in The Vanishing American Adult relates to broader issues in contemporary American culture. Sasse’s book explains that many of today’s young Americans are not successfully transitioning from dependent children to independent adults, and offers suggestions for parents on how to foster maturity in their kids.

Sasse explained that, in his view, the decline in self-responsibility amongst young adults reflects the cultural effects of both mass affluence and the weakening of society’s mediating institutions. Because of improvements in the quality of household appliances and the rise of the information economy, kids no longer consistently experience chores or manual work outside the house. At the same time, family breakdown, community dislocation, and declining religiosity mean that children are less exposed to adult virtues through intergenerational or communal relationships.

Murray agreed, emphasizing that American culture has become less conducive for the transmission of social capital to children. The size of the average American home has about tripled since the 1950s, when closer quarters forced familial interaction. Endless cellphone use constitutes another barrier today even when families are physically close together. Murray suggested that, in addition to being more beneficial to children’s character development, modesty in consumption can make families happier. A house should feel like a “second skin;” excessive fanciness detracts from the warmth, personality, and togetherness that should characterize home.

Murray’s thoughts about housing related to Sasse’s emphasis on the importance of distinguishing between needs and wants. For Sasse, continual technological advancements have allowed Americans to meet more and more wants-but this does not necessarily lead to happiness, as wants are endless. Limiting consumption can create mindfulness of our shared identity as producers and of the importance of work.

The Imperative of Cultural Reform

According to Murray and Sasse, redeveloping virtue, community, and resilience are especially important due to the nature of ongoing secular change in the economy. Sasse described these human implications of the post-industrial economy, a topic he recently wrote about in a Wall-Street Journal Op-Ed. Automation and artificial intelligence will add to the economy’s productive capacity, but the benefits of these developments will not be evenly shared. The model where workers held a consistent job or professional affiliation throughout their career will not persist due to the disruption caused by rapid changes in digital technology. Americans will need the qualities of the full-fledged adults- resilience, responsibility, and work ethic- to navigate this economic landscape.

Murray agreed that economic changes make the persistence of strong cultural values all the more important. He discussed the role both the privileged and the less fortunate can play in building durable communities. Today’s intellectually gifted young adults display a widespread passion for academic and professional achievement, but do not always possess a sense of vocation in the broad, Catholic sense of that term. High achieving young persons ought to feel a sense of obligation to familial, religious, and geographic communities, where their talents can make a large impact. Murray suggested that older men, who might lose traditional breadwinner status due to economic dislocation, also should consider this broader meaning of vocation. Community work can give men a sense of purpose and pushes against the economic winds contributing to the decline in social capital.

Video, and Future Discussion

Video of the entire Pizza, Pints, and Policy discussion, “Building a Culture of Self-Reliance and Responsibility,” can be found here. We look forward to having you at the next event!