I like the Russ Roberts podcast. His pro-market views are pretty standard for a former GMU economist, but he combines them with a cultural traditionalism rooted in a deep understanding of human nature that I also appreciate. He seems like a genuinely nice and well-meaning guy. A few months ago I was listening to one of his podcasts, in which he interviewed a British woman named Noreena Hertz about her book on loneliness.
The author pretty much blames neoliberalism as practiced by Reagan and Thatcher for what has gone wrong. Roberts, in contrast, doesn’t believe there is much of a connection between what economic system we live under and how connected people feel towards one another.
At one point, the host says he doesn’t understand what she means when she says we live in a neo-liberal world, as government is bigger than ever, and that he is more inclined to think about the decline of the family as the cause of our problems. Hertz responds in the following way.
One of the things that they really defunded, and we see this in country after country, is things like public parks, public libraries, youth clubs, community centers. In the United Kingdom, 160 public libraries were closed down in 2019 alone. In the United States, federal funding for public libraries fell by a third over just a few-year period.
So, people need physical places to be together, to do things together. And, government, I believe does have a role to play in helping to fund this at local and national levels. And, we have seen a steady under-funding of that as well…
And, I think the diminishment of the family is part of the problem here.
But, I would say that the solution to that doesn't mean that everyone should rush out and get married who isn't married, yes, and have kids. It's about: How do we create meaningful bonds between people who are not necessarily blood ties? How do we encourage, and also enable people to care for people who are not necessarily linked to them by blood?
I haven’t researched the question of whether people are actually lonelier than before in any depth, but the argument sounds plausible to me so I’ll grant that they are. Yet even if I do, the supposed answer to the problem presented here strikes me as absurd.
Hertz argues that since people are having smaller families, we need to ask ourselves how to replace the meaning they used to find in children, siblings, and cousins by encouraging them to find ways “to care for people who are not necessarily linked to them by blood.” To me, this sounds like asking “how can we enjoy eating in a world where we have dulled our sense of taste?” or “how can we enjoy sexual pleasure after we’ve castrated ourselves?” Blood relations, and the pair bonds that help create them, are not one form of social connectedness we can just exchange for something else once we don’t want to bother with the hassle of getting married and making babies anymore. Procreation and family formation are the evolutionary reasons love exists in the first place, and there is little to suggest that we can replace these things through government sponsored initiatives that seek to connect us to those we are not either having sex with or related to.
After the part of the discussion quoted above, Roberts and his guest go on to debate how important libraries are and how much we should care that they’re closing down. The problem with Hertz’ center-left views – and having listened to many people talk about loneliness and lack of meaning I think she’s not very unique here – is that she is ideologically committed to not encouraging people to get married and have children. Even if centrists of this type say they are pro-family, as Hertz claims to be, they’re always pro-family in the sense of encouraging individuals to get married and have kids only if it’s something that they as individuals already want to do. She takes what appears to be an agnostic stance as to what preferences individuals ought to have or which ones are most likely to lead to lasting happiness, as if the search for meaning should not include any theory as to what a fulfilling life actually looks like for most people. From listening to the podcast, I get the impression that Hertz would be opposed to any kind of direct efforts, whether government sponsored or cultural, to encourage family formation as opposed to making it easier as one option of many. Simply being pro-family sounds too patriarchal and exclusionary towards LGBTQ.
Marxists could at least promise a kind of utopia. Wokeness today has most of the energy on the left, but I gather that people of a more centrist disposition – that is, those who do things like write books on loneliness – understand that it’s too inherently divisive to ever be the answer to modern meaninglessness. So what’s left? Fund the library!
Really, if you’re talking about the library as the path out of nihilism, you’re out of ideas. Yes, I’m sure Hertz would not say her solution is only libraries, I get that they serve as a sort of metaphor for public spaces. She mentions “public parks, public libraries, youth clubs, community centers.” That’s a list of only four things, and I can barely get to the end of it without starting to get bored. Growing up in a not very nice American suburb, one thing I felt that we never lacked was parks. There were at least three or four within walking distance of my house, and if that number doubled I don’t think my life would’ve felt more meaningful. As for “youth clubs” and “community centers,” I’m not even sure what they are, but I’m pretty certain they’re not the answer to existential despair either. There’s a YMCA not too far from where I live now, and it seems to have about as much spiritual significance as the local supermarket. Once someone is mentioning “youth clubs” and “community centers” in the same breath as God and family as potential sources of meaning, they’ve lost the plot.
A commentator at Russ Roberts’ website tries to defend the library thesis, saying they are not just places to read books, but they “have public speakers and act as a location for grassroots organizations to meet.” I think many in the pro-libraries, anti-austerity crowd think that political activity is a social good and should be encouraged, which is why we should consider government-funded public spaces as more desirable than Starbucks and shopping malls. Plus they won’t kick out the homeless, which makes them more “inclusive” than businesses that actually need to attract voluntary customers and therefore have standards as to which people they let take up space. To me, political activism is a poor substitute for things that actually give people meaning, and since most people – particularly those prone to organizing strangers towards a common purpose – are pretty bad at reasoning about public policy issues, it usually imposes a cost on the rest of society. If anything, we should be taxing it.
There’s no way out of this paradox. The woke-skeptical left wants people to have meaning in life, but is uncomfortable with the things that actually give them meaning. Russ Roberts knows this, which is why he had four kids and moved to Israel. I’m sure that throughout his life, wherever he has gone with them – even the shopping mall – he has found meaning. He doesn’t need to grasp at straws in the hopes that strangers or the government will provide it for him.