Hard Times and Liberalism’s Dream of a Painless World
In his devotion to the pursuit of happiness, modern man has forgotten how to suffer.


During hard times, it is only natural that we should spend a good deal of time blaming the villains. For the Left, the authors of the present discontents are (a) President Bush, and (b) the free market. Those on the Right finger (a) politicians who favor tax-and-spend policies that will ensure continued stagnation, and (b) bankers who benefit from self-serving regulation that not only insulates them from the consequences of their greed and stupidity but actually rewards them for it with taxpayer-subsidized bailouts.

Reasonable though our preoccupation with the assignment of blame is, it has obscured a deeper problem that the depressed economy has brought to light. In his devotion to the pursuit of happiness, modern man has forgotten how to suffer.

The dream of a painless world is the great illusion of liberalism. Classical liberalism, it is true, never promised to make men happier; it promised only to make them richer. Adam Smith argued that we deceive ourselves when we suppose that those material luxuries that we associate with happiness are “worth all the toil and anxiety which we are so apt to bestow” on their attainment.

Material wealth is good, Smith says, not because it makes us permanently happier, but because it enables us to dispense, in some measure, with physical and corporeal miseries (hunger, squalor, disease, and the like). In their place we have psychological and spiritual debilities. The primitive man famishes; the civilized man despairs — he experiences the accidioso, the dejection and spiritual sloth, described by Dante, or the noia and “inward death” of Leopardi, or the ennui of Baudelaire. The civilized man is not happier than the savage, but his misery is more polished and elegant, and as a general rule comely things are to be preferred to uncomely ones.

Smith’s classical liberalism has all but entirely given way to a modern liberalism which regards suffering not as something inherent in the very nature of life but as an anomaly to be eradicated by reason and science and social legislation. Thus President Kennedy argued that “man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty.” Really, Jack? All forms? Intellectual poverty (stupidity)? Emotional poverty (black-dog despair)? Poverty of the flesh (ugliness)?

The “pain which is essential to life cannot be thrown off,” Schopenhauer says. “The ceaseless efforts to banish suffering accomplish no more than to make it change its form.” If we succeed in removing pain in one of its forms, “it immediately assumes a thousand others.”

Delusory though it is, liberalism’s dream of an anodyne world persists because it appeals to our inner egotism and self-conceit. When something painful happens to one, one’s instinct is to be outraged, as though the universe had made a mistake in abrogating one’s right to an ideal and perfect felicity. But there has been no mistake; we have been created to know joy, and also to know misery.