The Rule of Leisure
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WHERE DID OUR AMERICAN DREAM GO?
Somehow, point by point, it has slipped away from us, and taken with it our definition of "middle class."
Would that we could wake up and reclaim the best of that
dream; but we've awakened to a reality where we can't even remember it clearly
The American middle class hasn't seen increases in its standard of
living since the mid-1970s. In fact, to maintain this standard of living it has had to make two huge
cultural changes in the past three decades:
As a result, the real U.S. standard of living has decreased
in the past several decades.
People work longer hours, more people apart are required to work, and
Americans live in significantly higher levels of debt.
Gone are the
unchallenged expectations of most people paying off the home and the cars,
paying for the kids' college or retiring debt-free with a healthy nest egg.
Since 1995 the middle class is disappearing and the gap
between the upper and lower classes is growing. The number of two- and
three-generation households is increasing, and the percentage of people who own
their own homes is decreasing.
In short, the American Dream is out of reach for
more and more Americans--becoming the "American Fantasy"; or for some, who lay
awake at night wondering how they're going to keep from losing it all, even "The
The Role of Leisure
To understand the rise and fall of the American middle
class, we need to know where it came from, and what it was for.
The future of the freedom is determined by how
people spend their time. The two major uses of time (other than sleep) are 1)
making a living (obtaining the necessities) and 2) leisure (other activities
not related to immediate survival and security).
One of the most significant
developments during the rise and fall of the middle class is the major change
By some measures, leisure is the defining characteristic of
society. How we use our leisure, who gets to engage in leisure, and how many in
society are able to enjoy leisure--these are the determinants of civilizational
The underlying reasons for the decline of America's living standard
are based on a generational misunderstanding, a myth in fact, about
civilizational success and progress.
In the years after World War II the middle class was taught
that government can ensure economic success for all through a safety net
(unemployment benefits, health insurance, free education, college training for
any who want it, social security and other retirement benefits).
In such a
system, everyone can earn nearly upper-class levels of money and enjoy nearly
upper-class levels of spending and--the cherry on top, that hallmark of achievement,
that enviable perk that lets you know you've arrived--Leisure Time.
This promise proved true, for the most part--mainly because
the American Founding had established a system of freedom that offers
What was missing in this post-1945 dialogue was the
discussion of what a free man or woman could/should do with leisure time. The resulting evolution of society became a micro-emancipation that left a
newly-elevated middle class unprepared for their newfound luxury--because they had
no experience with or vision of the responsibilities that were entailed in the
How people use their leisure time has a direct, lasting, and
nearly immediate impact on society.
The aristocratic nations learned this
lesson over time: If those with leisure turn to mere entertainment, the society
declines and collapses.
This reality was proven in dozens of societies, from
ancient Babylon, Athens, Persia, Macedon, Carthage, Rome, etc. to Genoa, the
Swiss Cantons, Florence, Wales, Scotland and the German Principates, among
The Rule of Leisure
When the leaders of a nation (the leadership class which has
leisure time) use their leisure for self-centered things rather than improving
the society, their moral authority to rule decreases and the nation declines.
Call it the Rule of Leisure: Those with the benefit of leisure must use it well
or they will lose it.
The phrase that perhaps best describes this is noblesse
oblige, which means that anyone who possesses economic or
social advantages is required by duty to act altruistically, honorably, and in
the best interest of his fellow man.
The Bible puts it more succinctly: Where
much is given, much is required.
This lesson was a central message of upper-class education
in the great classics. It was learned and passed on to posterity by French,
Spanish, German and English aristos for
centuries, and read by the average American farmer, merchant and youth in the
American founding era.
It is discussed at length in Plutarch, Gibbon, Hume, The
Federalist Papers, Democracy in America and other books read by most moderately educated
Americans before the 1930s. In America it was usually simply called duty.
That noblesse oblige
is forgotten today, that our citizens in the middle class in general (with a
very few energetic and vocal exceptions) have neglected to use our advantages
for the protection of freedom and prosperity and to fulfill our role as the overseers of government, is the reason for the decline of the middle-class
standard of living since 1975--and its potential collapse in the decades ahead.
The reality is this: in a nation where the government is by
the people, where it is the people who dictate to the government its operations
and limitations, where each citizen is acknowledged as equal before the law and
endowed with rights that do not devolve from the government but from natural
law--in such a land as this, American's "leadership class" is the whole
citizenry, which means that the average
American citizen is part of the leisure class that determines our future.
America's Second Great Leadership Crisis
The U.S. is now facing our second major leadership crisis.
The first occurred when generations of American leaders and citizens thought we
could break the principles of societal success and get away with it--but slavery
and discrimination are wrong, and we eventually had to weather the consequences
of not putting an end to them sooner.
The Civil War and its aftermath was the result
of this first great leadership crisis. Hopefully we have the wisdom to avoid a
repeat of history.
Our second great challenge may prove as daunting as slavery
and the fight for civil rights.
The belief in using our leisure mostly for
ourselves is widespread. Like slavery and discrimination, this belief is
contrary to the laws that govern societal success, and every historical nation
that lived by this belief suffered dire consequences.
Like some young offspring of the very wealthy, as a nation
we seem to think freedom is more about rights than responsibilities and
prosperity is more about license to pursue pleasure than using leisure to
We think of our prosperity as a birthright, rather than a hard-won
privilege entailed with the duty to improve the world and pass on something
better to posterity.
This is a mistake often made by nations with
unsophisticated or young leisure classes, and America's last three generations
(Boomers, born 1945-1964; Generation X, born 1964-1984; and Millennials, born 1984-2005)
are the first classically un-educated American leisure class.
Throughout history, an education for a future leader meant
studying the great books, and being part of the leisure class as a citizen
meant reading the great books throughout adult life.
Career specialization has
proven advantageous for societal and personal wealth accumulation, but ignoring
the old lessons is proving a disaster for the prosperity of the middle class.
We don't have to choose between the two, however. As the
great former University of Chicago president Robert Hutchins put it, we would
be even better career specialists if we also had a great education in history
and the great books.
The Lessons of History
How often we return to the prophecy by Santayana: "Those who
cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
The idea that the future of our nation depends on our regular citizens using
their leisure time to read the great books, serve in the community, look around
and find people in need and help them, make extra money to donate to good
causes, and in general work, sacrifice and give back to others is a surprise to
It's like the employed person in the cubicle who dreams of
being his own boss, only to start a business and find that instead of a 9-5
career he now needs to work 90-hour work weeks, forego his hobbies and
interests in order to make the company succeed and keep his employees and their
families secure. The benefits and perks of ownership are available, he learns,
but it will take some time and a lot of hard work to earn them.
Many such people are tempted to go back to the relative ease
of employment, just like many citizens who realize the true responsibility of
freedom wonder if perhaps freedom is really worth it.
It seems that the loss of
freedom is the most effective way to persuade a person or a people just how
precious it really is.
Overcoming the Myth of Leisure
As a citizenry, we have little concept of our personal noblesse
oblige and the responsibility our years of
national peace and prosperity have placed on us.
We are a nation like college
freshman away from home and parents' rules for the first time--we live on ramen,
stay out until 4 am, max our credit cards and send our parents the bill. Except
we don't have parents with deep pockets anymore--the stimulus has run its course
and the local and state government bubble is just beginning.
I remain optimistic, however. The great books are on our
shelves, and the lessons of history are there for us all.
We just have to read,
listen and apply.
Our freedoms came in a specific way, one forgotten to all
except those who read the great books and histories.
As Robert Hutchins wrote:
of one working parent, it has had to send both parents into the workplace in
order to sustain its living standard.
of getting a job and buying a home and then getting married, it has mortgaged
its way through life using debt to cover its major needs from education, home
ownership and family cars to the basic expenses of life. Such debts typically
last into retirement and are in fact increased during old age as healthcare
"Until lately the West has regarded
it as self-evident that the road to education lay through great books. No man
was educated unless he was acquainted with the masterpieces....
disappearance of great books from education and from the reading of adults
constitutes a calamity. In this view education in the West has been steadily
deteriorating; the rising generation has been deprived of its birthright....
"The goal toward which Western
society moves is the Civilization of the Dialogue. The spirit of Western
Civilization is the spirit of inquiry. Its dominant element is the Logos.
Nothing is to remain undiscussed. Everybody is to speak his mind. No
proposition is to be left unexamined....
"To put an end to the spirit of inquiry
that has characterized the West it is not necessary to burn the books. All we
have to do is to leave them unread for a few generations. On the other hand,
the revival of interest in these books from time to time throughout history
[Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment, American Founding, etc.] has provided
the West with new drive and creativeness. Great books have salvaged, preserved,
and transmitted the tradition on many occasions similar to our own."
It is time, past time, for a rebirth of the great books.
Read one. Then another. The future of America, freedom and widespread
prosperity hang in the balance.
Perhaps awakening to a sense of our awful
situation will not cause the burdens of debt and squandered opportunity to rest
lighter on us. But the empowerment of knowing and understanding will
arm us with the ability to ensure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our
Our modern view of the American Dream was too superficial,
too uni-dimensional. The physics of that dream make no sense in real life. It
was all about what we got to have.
understanding our role as the leisure class will teach us what we must do and be
in order to not only have but to bequeath the things we value most.
The shortest distance between where we are today as a nation
and an effective return to increasing our freedoms and widespread prosperity is
for regular American citizens to read and study the great books.
We need a
rebirth of leadership leisure across America--from books to service and beyond.
The time is now, and the future depends on our success in this endeavor.
Perhaps the modern view of the American Dream is a fantasy, but the Rule of
Leisure is real.
Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through leadership education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.
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