The Limits Of Materialism

American history abounds with apparent contradictions, but few loom as large as this: we are a people wedded simultaneously to materialism and spirituality, mostly (though not exclusively) religious. In a recent Gallup poll, 61 percent of Americans said religion is "very important" in their lives. This same nation, of course, has now unleashed history's greatest acquisitive binge. From 1995 through 1999, Americans have purchased (among other things) 77 million cars and light trucks, almost 8 million new homes, 57 million personal computers and 64 million mobile phones.

The contradiction shapes our culture. Merrill Lynch reported last week that the number of millionaires in the United States and Canada has risen almost 40 percent since 1997 to 2.5 million. Popular obsession with the stock market has reached almost psychotic proportions, but some of the new superwealthy are so uneasy with their fortunes that they succumb to what therapist Stephen Goldbart calls "sudden wealth syndrome," characterized by "excessive guilt" and "identity confusion." As for ordinary Americans, they view the country's greatest problems as moral. In a 1999 survey, people listed their four top concerns as: crime, wrongdoing by elected officials, drug abuse and family breakdown.

Get used to it. The struggle between morality and economics is a recurring pattern of the American experience, argues Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Fogel in a new book.* There's a regular cycle, he says. Changing technologies and economic conditions collide with moral values to produce spiritual crises, social reform and political upheavals. People strive to impose a moral framework on new economic realities. Following other scholars, Fogel identifies four such religious "awakenings"--beginning in roughly 1730, 1800, 1890 and 1960--that eventually affected intellectual life and politics.

Technology drives these moral reappraisals by altering how we live, Fogel says. Before 1810, he relates, sailing from Europe to the United States was long (30 days), hazardous (between 10 and 20 percent of passengers ultimately died) and expensive (the cost equaled a laborer's annual income). By 1860 the trip had dropped to seven days, while the costs and hazards had declined about 90 percent. Cheaper and safer travel encouraged immigration. This led to bigger, more chaotic cities and fed a sense of moral crisis.

"Philadelphia, New York, and Boston were perceived as threats to social order (because they bred disease, crime, violence, and moral decay)," writes Fogel. It was no accident, he says, that the religious reawakening of the early 1800s emphasized that "anyone can achieve saving grace through... struggle against sin." The political goals spawned in this era included universal education and temperance (banning alcoholic drinks). Between 1846 and 1855, 13 states passed prohibition laws, though most were quickly abandoned.

By the 1890s, the focus on individual sin was shifting to society's sins. Poverty was less the result of personal fault than collective failure. Again, technology fired moral outrage and politics. Industrialization and urbanization had transformed America. In 1850 the steel industry consisted of "hundreds of enterprises with blast furnaces," but by 1880 the entire "output of Bessemer steel was produced by just thirteen [massive] plants." People had lost control of their lives. They suffered from industrial unemployment, oppressive working conditions and city slums. All this spawned the Third Great Awakening, whose political agenda eventually created the modern welfare state (from child-labor laws to income redistribution).

Of course, Fogel's theory is too sweeping. The abolitionist crusade to end slavery belongs to the Second Awakening. It didn't have much to do with technology. Neither did the First Great Awakening, predating the revolution. And Fogel concedes that the reformist impulse for the welfare state--which has flourished since the 1930s--quickly became detached from any religious origins. Still, his basic insight survives: people try to reconcile religious and moral beliefs with every new economic order.

In our era, Fogel contends, great tensions derive from abundance. All but the poorest of the poor live better today than all but the richest of the rich a century ago. In 1890, only the top 10 percent of Americans had incomes exceeding today's poverty line. Leisure has exploded, because people live longer--and retire--and job demands have shrunk. In 1880, workers labored an average of 11 hours a day, six days a week. But rising materialism doesn't guarantee personal fulfillment or cure social ills. The greatest social inequalities today, Fogel asserts, are more spiritual than economic. What qualities some people have in excess, others lack entirely. These include self-discipline, a sense of purpose and a feeling of community. But these qualities cannot be acquired in the market or easily transferred by government programs. They are instilled mainly by family.

America's Fourth Awakening began, Fogel says, when the religious right began emphasizing moral concerns. Though the religious right's political power may be waning, many of its ideas have migrated to the mainstream. Just last week President Clinton crowed over social statistics showing that teens who eat with their parents are "far more likely to avoid smoking, drinking, violence, suicide and drugs" than those who don't. The observation seemed unremarkable. This was hardly true a decade ago when Vice President Quayle was ridiculed for doubting (in his "Murphy Brown" speech) that single-parenthood was culturally praiseworthy.

The message here is that materialism complicates freedom. Abundance breeds anxiety, because it gives us more freedom. We are increasingly liberated to "be ourselves," but self-expression can slip into self-indulgence, sometimes self-destructive. More freedom is better if we use it wisely, but often we are our own worst enemies.