Ben Shapiro: America is Engulfed in a Crisis of Meaning—And It's Killing Us | Opinion

Last week, the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention National Center for Health Statistics released a shocking fact: life expectancy dropped in the United States for the third straight year, down to 78.6 years as of 2017. What, exactly, drove that decline? Drug overdoses and suicides. Drug overdoses were responsible for more than 70,000 deaths in 2017, with the overdose rate climbing 9.6 percent over 2016; suicide jumped 3.7 percent.

CDC director Robert Redfield explained, "Life expectancy gives us a snapshot of the nation's overall health and these sobering statistics are a wakeup call that we are losing too many Americans, too early and too often, to conditions that are preventable."

The continuing decline in American life expectancy should give the lie to the bizarre notion that drug overdose and suicide are results of a stagnant economy—a common theory on both the Right and the Left. That theory suggests that the globalized economy has left behind a particular segment of Americans, and that those Americans are dealing with economic hardship through drugs and depression. But that wouldn't explain why life expectancy is declining now, when it continued to increase throughout the 2007-2009 economic recession. As David Brooks of The New York Times points out, "[economic] gains are finally being widely shared, even by the least skilled…Thanks mostly to government transfer programs, incomes for the bottom fifth of society have increased by about 80 percent over the past four decades."

It also wouldn't explain the demographics of drug overdoses. As the CDC points out, "Some of the greatest increases [among heroin users] have occurred in demographic groups with historically low rates of heroin use: women, the privately insured, the people with higher incomes." And those taking their own lives are disproportionately not middle aged people falling out of the workforce—they are older American males, predominantly white. These are not the demographics of the economically dispossessed in the United States.

No, something else is missing. That something else is also manifesting in social fragmentation, tribal polarization, and political rage.

America is experiencing a crisis of meaning. And we are filling our need for meaning with whatever we have at our disposal: drugs, ethnic solidarity, political mobbing. The problem here isn't capitalism and its supposed excesses, or classical liberalism and its atomization of individuals. The problem here is that while we have a bevy of centrifugal forces operating on us, we have very few centripetal forces bringing us together.

Those forces used to be obvious: church, family, local community. We shared certain basic Judeo-Christian values: a belief in responsible individual decision-making, caring for our neighbor on a social level, cherishing our heritage of individual rights while also performing individual duties in the name of virtue.

For decades, those on the political Left have critiqued the social structures that used to bind us. iStock

All of this gave us meaning and purpose. But now those values have been torn asunder. For decades, those on the political Left have critiqued the social structures that used to bind us. Church, rather than acting as a unifying force, was portrayed as a theocratic oppressor; family, rather than acting as a protector of children and a bulwark for women, was treated as a patriarchally tyrannical institution; local communities, rather than being seen as a source of innovation and social support, were seen as torture chambers of parochialism. The institutions were razed; we were freed of them by proclaiming our victimhood at their hands.

All that was left was rubble.

And out of the rubble, we were supposedly going to build a better world—a world in which responsibility would be assumed by a vast, overarching collective; a world in which individual freedom would be unconstrained by individual duty; a world in which Judeo-Christian virtue could be safely excised in favor of generic "niceness."

None of that has come to pass. It turns out that tearing away the foundational institutions of a society destroys our social fabric; it turns out that removing the rules and tools that gave us shared meaning and purpose left us defenseless before the vicissitudes of life.

We must regain meaning. That meaning won't be found in a job, or in a welfare check, or in a dollar amount. It will be found only in the reassertion of the values that undergirded our freedoms in the first place—the values of Judeo-Christianity, which provided the fundamental framework for the enlightenment freedoms we all enjoy today.

Ben Shapiro is editor-in-chief of The Daily Wire and host of The Ben Shapiro Show, available on iTunes and syndicated across America.​

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​