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January 17, 2007

Avner Offer is wrong about the causes of our lack of self-control, argues Christie Davies: The Challenge of Affluence: Self-control and well-being in the United States and Britain since 1950 - Avner Offer

Posted by Christie Davies

The Challenge of Affluence: Self-control and well-being in the United States and Britain since 1950
by Avner Offer
Pp. 454. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006
Hardback, 30

Christie Davies accepts the call by ex-Israeli soldier Avner Offer for more self-control in Britain but denies that the cause of its lack is affluence. We must - argues Christie Davies - blame governments, welfare and the pursuit of social justice for our present modern discontents, not affluence.

Avner Offer has provided a more scholarly, nuanced and intellectually demanding version of the numerous recent popular paperbacks that have been telling us about the downside of affluence.

It is a new version of the Easterlin paradox that as societies grow richer, beyond a certain point, there is no corresponding increment of happiness for its individual citizens nor for individuals within a particular society. As incomes rise and people become surer of their basic necessities and comforts they report much higher levels of contentment relative to the poor or when they were poor. But when they get richer still there is a marked slackening off; they only report very small extra gains in happiness or contentment. The curve linking affluence and self-reported happiness flattens out, whether you take a cross-section of people at any one time or look at the cumulated surveys of the entire population of the UK or the USA for the last fifty years.

Such findings would not entirely surprise a classical utilitarian economist. They also lie behind the Layard-Pleiades-Playhard-Blowhard nonsense that is influencing Brown and Cameron alike to the effect that we should go for happiness not growth. The last fifty years of not much rise in aggregate happiness were also ones of greatly increasing longevity and ever longer years of education, two key state objectives. Long life and education don't buy a country happiness any more than money does, so what is the state to do? Bang goes the Brownist plan to raise taxes to spend on schools and the NHS. More unwilling conscripts in schools is guaranteed to raise misery levels all round as well as denting the GNP. Bang too goes Offer's idea that the source of our modern discontents is too much choice.

Offer, who is in a state of perpetual anger with St. Milton's views on choice, capitalism and freedom, thinks too much choice is bad. People can't handle it psychologically and they also tend to choose immediate crass gratifications, the fading, fleeting pleasures over the (John Newton):

solid joys and lasting treasures none but Zion's children know.
The evil advertisers push hedonism and encourage novelty-seeking because it sells products but these prove unrewarding and so we remain miserable in affluence. We are not rational consumers and so we are lured into over-indulgence, the latest of these is cheap, tasty food leading to gross obesity. Society lacks protection from new and cheap rewards, thunders Offer, adding a little homily about smoking.

There is some truth in all of this and I have some sympathy with Offer when he denounces lack of prudence. But the problem is not a new one, nor a capitalist one nor just one of affluence and in Britain we do live longer and healthier lives, decade by decade. Britain is getting older every day.

As Offer admits, before fast-food-obesity there was excessive fat-meat consumption and associated heart failure and before that the evils of smoking and yet both were largely conquered. Smoking among men in Britain peaked in 1948 in the middle of austerity and high taxes when consumers had never had it so bad. With affluence and health scares men began to quit, well before the government campaigns and in defiance of the advertisers. Players ceased to please. The camel got humped. People smoked far more recklessly in France or China, where tobacco was a state monopoly and decisions were made for you.

Patterns of gross over-indulgence have long preceded affluence. Most of the countries of northern Europe have always had a serious alcohol problem. Restraint and temperance are new phenomena, a product of mid to late-nineteenth century respectability. Offer does not seem to understand that the quality of self-control, he rightly deplores our losing over the last fifty years, had first to be created, and created mainly by private institutions and public opinion not by the state.

British sobriety was built at an earlier time of increasing affluence, indeed alcohol consumption fell in the last decades of the nineteenth century because the men's beer money was diverted into consumer goods. The problem today is that it has been diverted back again. Yet the worst of all alcohol problems, one that knocked several years off life expectations, was produced in the old Soviet Union - a land of rising money incomes, no consumer goods, high levels of personal saving, no advertising and a population that got fat on bread and spuds, stank of rank tobacco and rolled drunk in the snow. But according to Offer, it's all the fault of capitalism and advertising.

Offer goes even further and blames the collapse of family life and the rise in divorce and illegitimacy and the fall in the birth rate in late twentieth century Britain on affluence and the advertisers who undermined all capacity for commitment. All these things also happened in the Soviet Union and much of Eastern Europe, which is a bit awkward for his case, but what do a few facts matter? The common factors are secularisation, the supplanting of family and kinship by the state and the erosion of traditional sex roles brought about by one version or another of feminist nonsense. Who needs affluence as an explanation? In the past people married, had legitimate children, stayed with their partners and brought up and disciplined their children because that is what you did, like your parents and grandparents before you.

The pattern was destroyed not so much by consumerism but by much more conscious attacks on the family tradition to create individualism not of the market place but of ideologies of emancipation, liberation and fulfilment. Who on the left has ever defended the patriarchal, highly responsible, bourgeois and working class families that used to provide a secure childhood and thus well-balanced adults? Who designed the welfare arrangements that made its destruction possible and probable as people ceased to need family and kin as back-up? Who pushed feminism and childism? Who advocated progressive methods in child-rearing and education? Affluence may well have played a part but it was a bit part.

Behind the collapse of family life and the rise in crime, violence and drink and drug abuse in Britain since the mid-1950s lies not affluence but, as I have shown conclusively in my recent book, The Strange Death of Moral Britain, our growing cultural and ideological reluctance to hold individuals responsible for their moral failures. The British are an army of delinquents led by wankers.

Affluence may have made it easier to overcome resistance to this ideology, but the real villains are the changing kinds of decisions made within welfare and educational systems. It is not just consumer choices that can err in preferring the immediate and easy over the long term and difficult. Indeed our entire system of education and welfare are rotten to the core because they are cowardly and indulgent. We have protected people from the consequences of their own folly and we have filled the world with fools. The mistakes made by consumers are as nothing to those made by governments. The former are limited and self-correcting, the latter are massive and irreversible.

The tussle between insatiable appetites and the processes of self-control that Offer parades as a great new insight and as peculiar to affluence was already discussed in detail by Emil Durkheim in Le Suicide at the end of the nineteenth century. You won't find Durkheim in Offer's bibliography nor indeed Sorokin or Weber who also anticipated him in other respects. Offer prefers to rediscover the wheel and play the prophet.

For Durkheim, human beings had a built-in insatiability, one only restrained by social institutions. Individuals needed groups and they needed rules and in their absence you got egoism and anomie, linked in Durkheim's study to higher suicide rates. The more choice and the more uncertainty, the more anomie, whether economic, religious or familial and, says Durkheim, the move to modernity pushed matters in these directions, producing an increase in suicide rates. Durkheim does not use Offer's clumsy language of "commitment technologies", (which tells us exactly where Offer is coming from and why he is wrong-headed) but he fully anticipates Offer's thinking.

I often wonder what Durkheim would have made of the massive fall in the British suicide rate during the last forty years. Durkheim already had problems because Britain, the country of commerce, had lower suicides than much of the Continent in his own day. Offer likewise postulates that affluence leads to a greater prevalence of mental disorders and that

another indicator of mental turmoil is suicide.
So the drop in British suicides gives him something to think about too.

Choices made by bureaucrats, social workers, educationalists and politicians can indeed be very damaging but the purchasing choices made by consumers are benign and harmless. We may be richer today but the social fact of consumer choice is not in essence that different from what it was in 1907 and 1957. The damage is done by social choice, social mobility, social change. If it never occurred to people that there could be alternatives to the groups to which they belong and their given mores, they would be content with a life shaped and fixed by gender, age, social class, religion, nation and locality. Everyone is happy except for those unlucky enough not to fit in to the pattern.

Modern evils stem from the progressive thinkers and writers of the past, particularly those drawn from or taking up the cause of the misfits. They demanded choice and we got freethought, "unconventional" modes of family life, a defiance of the conventions of social class such as marriages between individuals of very disparate backgrounds and the embracing of the deviant. It is these latter expansions of the range of choice and the social changes under which disruptive choices have become tolerated, accepted, condoned that have undermined our social and individual well-being. They have a far more powerful and disruptive impact than improved choices of what to buy. It is diversity of life-styles that is the problem not affluence. Oh dark satanic Mill! Down with diversity! Long live consumer choice!

Offer does not suggest how we (and in their different ways the unhappy Americans and the shrinking childless peoples of Eastern and Southern Europe) get out of the pit of affluence but his snide remarks about Conservative politicians imply he likes leftist solutions incorporating the evils of social justice. Sensible people know that it is only through a return to a society based on our old loyalties, traditional values and primordial commitments that a solution could be found. Maybe there is no solution at all but this is the only path with any promise at all. You certainly won't solve the crisis by letting the economy collapse and setting up committees on happiness. Above all we must not allow our social crisis to become an excuse for another large dose of Dr Gordon "Collis" Brown's patent medicine, "equality - shit" dissolved in treacle. To a large extent our social illnesses are the result of previous dollops of the same poisonous and addictive drug.

Professor Christie Davies, a former Wrenbury scholar in political economy at the University of Cambridge, is the author of The Strange Death of Moral Britain, 2006 (2004).

To read Richard D. North's take on Avner Offer's The Challenge of Affluence, see: If it were paint, Avner Offer's The Challenge of Affluence would be accused of not living up to its tin.


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