The conservatives in party frocks and black tie were restless. They were hungry and thirsty. The bread had been devoured, the wine bottles were empty, and the speaker had not yet begun. There was one speech and one hour to go until dinner was served.
This was tradition, to mark the protocol at the annual Irving Kristol Lecture by the American Enterprise Institute, and everyone subscribed to the formal contract: "If ideology be the food of politics, think before you eat. Give me excess of it." Very Washington. There would be time to eat, drink and be merry after the enlightenment.
This was not the Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity crowd; there would be no knock 'em, sock 'em, beat 'em rhetoric. The audience expected something "thoughty," a speech from a conservative intellectual accustomed to looking at the big picture.
Tonight's speaker was Charles Murray, whose ideas give liberals indigestion and usually spark intelligent debate that eventually spills over into public policy. His book, "Losing Ground," published a quarter of a century ago, demonstrated how many government social programs, for all their good intentions, contributed to the destruction of social networks for poor black families. His data and analysis were the impetus for the welfare reform legislation that Bill Clinton, reluctant or not, signed into law.
While Murray fretted that his subject, the nature of happiness, sounded abstract, he knew an audience upset over President Obama's unfolding domestic agenda would find it "relevant" when put in the form of a succinct question: "Do we want the United States to be like Europe?"
The question was not about the cozy ambiance of the cafes of Paris, the beer gardens of Munich or the tapas bars of Barcelona; he's known to partake of the delights that make everyday life in Paris and Berlin, Amsterdam and Rome easy to love. But the Europe of familiar song and story will disappear in the lifetimes of those now small children if present trends continue.
Europeans suffer catastrophically low birthrates, as if the pleasures of daily life are not wonderful enough to pass on to the succeeding generations. The price of the long vacations, extended maternity leaves, generous child allowances and good daycare of the modern welfare state will be collected soon enough, and will be steep indeed.
Government policies have led Europeans to discount the "transcendent meaning" that Western civilization has given to human life. "If we ask what are the institutions through which human beings achieve deep satisfactions in life," he says, "the answer is that there are just four: family, community, vocation and faith." Almost anything government does impinges on these institutions, and while social policy in Europe legislates to make life happier, it fosters a narcissism that undercuts those institutions.
And here's the crux of his argument: Barack Obama's intellectual heroes, political theorists and policymakers are the American equivalent of Europe's social democrats. They want the government to take over ever more of our lives, to remake America in the mould of Europe, with all its attendant unhappy consequences.
"Happiness" can sound esoteric and distant in the midst of a recession that threatens to make all our lives less than happy. It's precisely this "crisis" that tempts us to embrace the example of Europe without facing up to the future costs, psychological and financial, of government spending and bureaucratic regulation and control. Marriage rates are plunging in Europe, and Europeans are not replacing themselves. Longer vacations take priority over job satisfaction, work is a "necessary evil" that intrudes on leisure, and the ancient churches are crowded with tourists who are there only to admire the architecture, not to worship.
Government policy can't be blamed for it all, but it's impossible to ignore government and the flabby intellectual concepts driving unintended change. Government is by far the strongest influence on the European "mindset." This even goes to the heart of Europe's military impotence: "If the purpose of life is to while away the time as pleasantly as possible," Murray asks, "what can be worth dying for?"
America's sense of itself comes from the "cultural capital" of its democratic institutions that at their best prize individual opportunity and satisfaction over equality of outcome, enabling the individual to take control of his own destiny and to accept the consequences of his actions.
That's hard to appreciate in the fog of a recession made worse by greed run amok. Government action may be "urgent," but legislation to correct mistakes can be fraught with good intentions that can make things worse. This was the evening's red meat, which arrived at the table before the filet mignon.