I DON’T WANT MY CHILDREN TO HAVE ANYTHING I DIDN’T HAVE. In fact, I want them to have less. Since Social Security, if unreformed, will be taking more than half my paycheck by the time I have kids in high school, this should be easy to arrange.
I came upon this decision while researching the history of Germany, especially just after World War II. I was studying the work of Wilhelm Röpke, whose economic policies, adopted in 1948 by Ludwig Erhard and Konrad Adenauer, helped launch the “German economic miracle.” So prosperous did Germans become so quickly, that the next generation could afford to castigate its parents for their crass materialism and greed. Indeed, the so-called “generation of 1968” that came of age across Europe and in the United States had one thing in common: their puling grievances.
These youths detested the bourgeois lifestyles and values of their parents, and the economic system, which had given them an unprecedented level of comfort, leisure, and freedom. Except for the brave stance taken by Prague’s democrats, the riots of 1968 were the tantrum of a spoiled generation.
Now there’s a German word, Schadenfreude, for the feeling of glee some folks enjoy at others’ misery. (I sometimes think all socialism is built on that emotion.) There’s a French word, reesentiment, for an envious rage experienced at the happiness of others. (This helps explain both Fascism and Communism.) Since I’m no linguist, I can’t tell if there’s a word for that most bizarre phenomenon: Anger provoked by one’s own prosperity, freedom, and good fortune, combined with a secret longing for tyranny and impoverishment. (Think: Jane Fonda.) My catechism says that man is born with Original Sin. G.K. Chesterton famously pointed out that this is the only doctrine which one can prove by reading the daily newspaper. It is grimly illustrated by the history of the past century.
The generation that blundered into World War I had just enjoyed almost 100 years without a major European war, and 65 years since the last serious political crisis, the revolts of 1848. Europe had colonized most of Africa and much of Asia, and social reforms had begun to blunt the sharpest edges of capitalism, while free trade linked disparate nations in a web of mutual profit and globalization. It seemed unthinkable to citizens in 1914 that three of Europe’s empires would fall, and almost 20 million men perish, in the war that the Great Powers launched. (The last war, between France and Prussia, had lasted months and claimed some thousands of deaths—many in the rebellions that roiled Paris.) Just so, it seems unthinkable today that America’s benevolent hegemony over the earth could come to an end. But it might, we’d be wise to remember: It very well might.
The Europeans, spoiled by peace and prosperity, forgot that wealth and leisure are not the natural conditions of man, but the fragile construction of centuries of wise policy and statesmanship. They drunkenly embraced extremes of nationalism, and launched the bloodiest war in history. The war they began gave the century poison gas and propaganda, mass conscription and mass repression—even of political speech in the U.S. (Labor leaders who opposed World War I such as Eugene Debs rotted in jail, as if the Constitution had been meant ironically.) That war also launched the careers of Lenin, Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, and their uncounted thousands of henchmen and hangmen, who raged across the Europe, which had once been pacified by the likes of Metternich and Talleyrand. Little could the men of the Congress of Vienna have imagined the awful barbarism that would engulf their Continent, beginning with the rocks of Kristallnacht, ending in the rubble of Berlin.
Some good came of all this suffering: The children who grew up in the Great Depression earned the sobriquet “the Greatest Generation” not just because they fought heroically in the Second World War—and died in their millions, for causes just or unjust. No, the term is also given to those who survived, who reconstructed Europe, who resettled the refugees and manned the factories, who put out the fires in Dresden, rebuilt Warsaw brick by brick, and founded the State of Israel. The prosperity this generation earned in the West made possible the exuberant consumer culture of the 1950s and early 1960s—and it fed the Baby Boom.
My mother is one example. She was born as one of 11 children to an alcoholic couple in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, in 1927. Six of those 11 died before age three, and the survivors were malnourished. My mother’s childhood merged the squalor of the Depression with the shortages and anxieties of war—and she bore the scars. But she also, like so many of her generation, developed enormous strength of character, and a deep love of country. Having seen how badly astray a country could go, she was fervently grateful for the blessings of America. (She knew exactly how much sympathy to spare, for instance, the blacklisted Stalinists of Hollywood: “Send ‘em to Siberia!” she liked to say.) And she gave us a much better life than she’d ever dreamt of as a child.
We were spoiled. Like millions of Americans, we swam in toys, attention and free time. I didn’t work in high school, or even in college. So little character had I built by my early 20s, that I spent 9 years in grad school, pursuing an English degree. (It worked—I’m now quite fluent.) Mom used to call me the “eternal student,” and indeed, I envied those German and French grad students who get stipends straight from the government. (I’d had to wring mine out of a university.) I’d fantasize about moving straight from Financial Aid to Social Security. I’m almost 40 years old, and I’m still “dating,” for Heaven’s sake! While I’m far from rich, let’s say I know entirely too much for my own good about cigars, Tokay, and sheep cheeses.
But have no fear. My own children will know poverty, or as close a simulation as I can create. They will work at tedious, pointless weekend jobs to earn their pocket money, and win their household privileges by excelling in Math and Science—precisely the fields I pretty much skipped. They will KNOW what a logarithm is. And before they go off to one of those “Sex and Beer Camps” that passes for a college these days, they will spend at least a year in the military, a soup kitchen, or (best of all) a grinding factory job—so they know, when they finally attend a university, what a privilege it is to spend all day with no other obligation but to learn, to bask in the great ideas, to savor the fruits that other men planted, tended, and collected.