The Triumph of the Therapeutic Mind

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

Beyond the political posturing over state and federal budgets, there looms an age-old philosophical divide over human nature, perhaps defined as the therapeutic versus the tragic view of our existence. The therapeutic view — thanks to the bounty and affluence brought about by modern technology — has largely triumphed. The tragic view is deemed the domain of the embittered, the selfish, and the downright mean.

There are several tenets of the modern therapeutic view. In such a utopian mindset, compensation is and should be based on what the employee considers necessary for the good life. The public employees in Wisconsin reject the three classical requisites for perpetually improved compensation: The employer has plentiful capital; the employee’s productivity creates new wealth or improves the efficiency of services; and the employee has market value and will go elsewhere should the employer be foolish enough to lose him.

Again, in the therapeutic mindset, perceived need is what matters, and all else must adjust accordingly. Teachers in Wisconsin rarely argue that their students’ test scores have increased or graduation rates have improved, or that their school districts are flush with cash, or that they themselves can always move to a parochial school or private academy if their talents are not better appreciated. Instead, in almost every contemporary discussion of budgetary discipline, from pensions and benefits to compensation, the argument is based on what one needs, in the teenage fashion of reminding a now unemployed parent that he once promised to buy the graduating senior a car.

When reality does not match dreams, somebody must make it go away. The Democrats have proposed cuts of less than 1 percent in federal discretionary spending. Neither party will touch Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security. Apparently, both parties have agreed not to raise federal income-tax rates. The recommendations of the national debt-reduction commission do not envision a healthy Social Security system until 2037. Planning to cease running up more debt in the future is apparently seen as too tough a financial medicine, and so the commission’s suggestions have so far been ignored. That is reality. And it must vanish.

Therefore, the first person to suggest cuts in entitlements is portrayed as callous rather than prudent. Fantasy offers some relief: Perhaps an inflationary, expansionary economy can pay off what we owe with more plentiful dollars. Euphemism can disguise the bad, as in the designation of terrorist acts as “man-caused disasters” and the war on terror as “overseas contingency operations.” So too perhaps we can rename these gargantuan deficits “Stimulus III,” or the unsustainable borrowing “investments in our future.”

Central to the therapeutic view also is a sort of adolescent shrug at consequences. If the delta smelt is deemed the barometer of healthy aquatic life in the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta, then a quarter-million acres of land will have be cut off from contracted irrigation supplies in order to divert the water to save the three-inch fish. Few of the biologists who engineered such strategies ever computed the wealth sacrificed by idling thousands of acres, the jobs lost, or the communities nearly destroyed. In the therapeutic view, the appeal is always to cosmic rather than earthly justice. If a tenured biologist’s job security is not predicated on bringing in a crop of carrots, if he can argue, in apocalyptic fashion, that saving the ecology of the planet is more important than a few “corporate” farms, then the rest of us are less likely to question such purported idealism — and not at all likely to wonder whether without such periodic existential crises we might need fewer tenured biologists and far fewer research grants.

Another characteristic of the therapeutic view is a sort of compartmentalization, one that allows the world to work one way for others and quite another for oneself — given that human nature has not quite evolved into the anticipated perfection. And the two contradictions are, of course, connected, the former justifying the latter. If Al Gore campaigns for cap-and-trade or massive ethanol subsidies, then we are less likely to worry that he enjoys traveling by private jet and owning several energy-hungry homes — just the sort of lifestyle that, if copied by three hundred million others in America, might actually heat up the planet. The more Michael Moore rants about capitalist greed, the easier it is to sue his producer for additional millions in income. The more the Hollywood set praises the socialism of Fidel Castro or Hugo Chávez, the less we should care that the film and television community goes in for higher-than-average conspicuous consumption, energy wastefulness in expansive and multiple homes, a sort of teenage material indulgence, and narcissism in fashion and cosmetic surgery. If a Harvard or Rutgers professor wishes to make some extra cash by offering his consulting services to the murderous Qaddafi family, then he can do so with impunity by describing the contract in altruistic terms.

One purchases exemption from the consequences of one’s ideology by rather inexpensive appeals to humanitarianism. A Michael Bloomberg, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, or NASA chief Charles Bolden can cite commitment to reducing fatty foods in our diet, curbing smoking, stopping the “cycle of violence,” or engaging in Muslim outreach — and, as a result, we are less likely to wonder why snow is not removed, state budget deficits pile up in the billions, known psychotics are not under surveillance, or rockets crash.

Expressed intentions count as much as actions in the world of therapy. The more Barack Obama can scold about unsustainable annual deficits, with plenty of “Let me be perfectly clear” and “Make no mistake about it” emphases, the easier it becomes to borrow an additional $400 billion this year and to run up the budget deficit to a record $1.6 trillion. You see, he is on record that he “cares” and “gets it” in matters of deficit reduction.

The therapeutic mind is utopian in nature, and so history is linear, not cyclical, in its constant evolution to perfection. Poverty, war, and chaos are not due to inherent human failings, but to “them” — usually a selfish subset of the population that has taken resources away from society and hamstrung it by denying all its children their destinies. In 2008 Michelle Obama best exemplified the therapeutic view. “They” had once raised the bar on her family, they were “downright mean” and were not cause for “pride”; but once one enjoyed the powers of governance, “they” were not all that bad, since they could pay for vacations on the Costa del Sol or in Vail, and might subsidize breast pumps for women who had apparently been forced to buy expensive formula instead.

When guaranteed entitlements, trillions of dollars in social services, the United Nations, and new modes of social science do not quite result in peace and prosperity, the therapeutic mind never concedes that man is by nature often self-indulgent and selfish; instead, it maintains that the massive government help and mandated collective caring were still not quite enough. One can never prove the therapeutic view wrong, since it sees no limit to what the state should provide the individual. What was not spent, rather than what was, is always the subject of debate. A reduction in a projected budget increase is tantamount to a heartless slashing.

And the tragic counterpart? It is too bleak to consider. Wars are stopped by eternal vigilance, military deterrence, diplomacy backed by force, and alliances. Frightening weapons are countered by either more, or anti-, frightening weapons. The more the individual understands that he is responsible for his own welfare, the more he is likely to accept and master that responsibility. Poverty and war are never eliminated, since human nature is fixed, but their terrible effects can be mitigated through sacrifice, altruism, and heroism in an unending struggle until the nature of man changes.

The final irony? The more we humans embrace the therapeutic, the more we find it both addictive and wanting — and so the more we search out the tragic vicariously in novels, films, and fantasy games, almost as if our souls wish to be what our bodies cannot.

©2011 Victor Davis Hanson

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