My book Hillbilly Elegy is really an exploration of the American Dream as it was experienced by me and my family and the broader community in which I lived.
It chronicled a real decline in the American Dream, not because people weren’t consuming as much as they have in the past – if you look at the trend lines, we’re certainly able to buy more stuff today than we ever have been able to. It’s a story about family decline, childhood trauma, opioid abuse, community decline, decline of the manufacturing sector, and all these senses of dignity and purpose and meaning that comes along with it.
When I was growing up, what the American Dream meant to me was that I had a decent enough job to support my family, and I could be a good husband and a good father. That’s what I most wanted out of my life. It wasn’t the American Dream of ‘the striver’. It wasn’t the American Dream, frankly, that I think animates much of Washington DC. I didn’t care if I went to Ivy League law school, I didn’t care if I got a best-selling book, I didn’t care if I had a lot of money. What I wanted was to be able to give my family and my children the things I hadn’t had as a kid.
That was the sense in which the American Dream mattered most to me. Now, that American Dream is undoubtedly in decline, what should a conservative politics do in response? I think a first and preliminary step is that we have to distinguish between conservative politics and libertarian politics.
Why do we fetishise the poverty memoir?
I don’t mean to criticise libertarianism. I first learned about conservatism as an idea from Friedrich Hayek – The Road to Serfdom is one of the best books that I’ve ever read about conservative thought. But I believe that conservatives have outsourced our economic and domestic policy thinking to libertarians, and because that’s such a loaded word, and because labels mean different things to different people, I want to define it as precisely as I can.
What I’m going after is this view that so long as public outcomes and social goods are produced by free individual choices, we shouldn’t be too concerned about what those goods ultimately produce. An example: in Silicon Valley, it is common for neuroscientists to make much more at technology companies like Apple or Facebook, where I think they quite literally are making money addicting our children to devices and applications that warp their brains, than folks who are neuroscientists trying to cure Alzheimer’s. I know a lot of Libertarians who will say ‘Well, that is the consequence of free choices. That is the consequence of people buying and selling labour on an open market, and so long as there isn’t any government coercion in that relationship, we shouldn’t be so concerned about it.’
What I’m arguing is that conservatives should be concerned about it. We should be concerned that our economy is geared more towards the development of applications than curing terrible diseases, and we should care about a whole host of public goods, in addition to that, and actually be willing to use politics and political power to accomplish some of those public goods.
What has 'flyover country' got to complain about?
I want to tell a story, one of the most heartbreaking stories I’ve heard since my book came out. A woman I met in southeastern Ohio – which is really ground zero for the opioid problem and so many other social problems that all of us care about in this country – was telling me about a young patient she had who had become addicted to opioids. He was eight years old and he was already addicted to Percocets. The way that this kid became addicted to opioids is that he would do drug runs for his family. Because they didn’t have a lot of money, if he made a successful drug run, they would actually give him a Percocet as a reward. That was how this kid, at the tender age of eight, became addicted to opioids.
I think there’s a tendency in our politics on the right to look at this kid and say ‘You know, it’s a tragedy what’s happened to him, but it’s fundamentally a tragedy that political power can’t touch. Parents need to make better decisions. This child, God willing, needs to make better decision when he grows up.’
I think that ignores the way in which human beings actually live their lives – the cultural, economic, and environmental contexts in which this kid grows up. It ignores the fact that this kid lives in a community that has too few spare dollars to spend and too many spare opioids. That is a political problem. That is something that we decided to do using political power. We allowed commercial actors to sell these drugs in our communities. We allowed our regulatory state to approve these drugs and to do nothing when it was very clear that these substances were starting to affect our communities. That was a political choice and political power can actually fix it.
That kid lives in a community where even if he makes good choices later on in life, he lives in a place where there are virtually no good jobs for a kid of his educational status and his social class. If he wants to earn a decent wage, if he wants to work at a good job, those jobs in his community have largely gone overseas thanks to forces of globalisation that we unleashed because of political choices. We made the choice that we wanted that kid to be able to buy cheaper consumer goods at Walmart instead of having access to a good job. And maybe that was a defensible choice – I don’t think it was– but it was a choice and we have to stop pretending that it wasn’t.
Don't call it poverty porn
I’ve been blown away by some of the research that I’ve seen in the past year about the way in which pornography warps young adults’ minds, and how they interact with their environment, and how they interact with their own sexuality. We know that young adults are marrying less – they’re having less children. They’re engaging in healthier and productive relationships less and less, and we know that at least one of the causes of this is that we have allowed – under the guise of libertarianism – pornography to seep even into our youngest minds through the channels of the Internet.
Again, we made a political choice that the freedom to consume pornography was more important than public goods like marriage and family and happiness. We can’t ignore the fact that we made that choice, and we shouldn’t shy away from the fact that we can make new choices in the future.
And even if this kid marches through an opioid epidemic in an environment and a community where there are very few good jobs, and even if he finds himself in a healthy relationship and wants to do the thing that I most defined as core to my American Dream – start a family and have happy, healthy children – he will confront a society and a culture and a market economy that is more hostile to people having children than maybe at any period in American history.
There are a lot of ways to measure a healthy society, but the way that I measure a healthy society, or I think the most important way to measure healthy society, is whether a nation – whether the American nation – is having enough children to replace itself.
Do people look to the future and see a place that’s worth having children? Do they have good enough jobs so that they can make the necessary sacrifices so that one of the parents can be home with that kid most of the time? Do they have economic prospects and the expectation that they’re going to be able to put a roof over their kid’s head, put food on the table and provide that child with a good education?
What hope for America's Deplorables?
By every statistic that we have, what we see is that people are answering ‘No’ to all of those questions. For the first extended period in the history of the American nation, our people aren’t having enough children to replace themselves. That should bother us. Now I know some libertarians will say ‘Well, that choice comes from free individuals. If people are choosing not to have children, if they’re choosing to spend their money on vacations or nicer cars or nicer apartments, then we should be okay with that.’
I think there is a good libertarian sympathetic response to that. We can point out, for example, that areas of the world and areas of the country with fewer children are less dynamic. We can point out that we have a social safety net that’s entirely built on the idea that you will have more workers and more people coming into the system than retire, and to do that, you need to have children being born. But I think to make this about economics is to concede too much of a premise that we don’t want to concede.
When I think about my own life, the thing that has made my life best is the fact that I am the father of a two year-old son. When I think about the demons of my own childhood, and a way that those demons have melted away in the love and laughter of my eldest son; when I see friends of mine who’ve grown up in tough circumstances and who’ve become fathers and have become more connected to their communities, to their families, to their faith, because of the role of their own children, I say we want babies not just because they’re economically useful. We want more babies because children are good.
Libertarians aren’t heartless, and I don’t mean to suggest that they are. I think they also recognise many of the same problems that we recognise. But they are so uncomfortable with political power, or so skeptical of whether political power can accomplish anything, that they don’t want to actually use it to solve or even to try to help address some of these problems.
How greed corrupted the American dream
If people are spending too much time addicted to devices that are designed to addict them, we can’t just blame consumer choice. We have to blame ourselves for not doing something to stop it. If people are killing themselves because they’re being bullied in online chatrooms, we can’t just say parents need to exercise more responsibility. You have to accept that parents live and swim in the same cultural pond as the rest of us.
It is one thing to be a good parent who monitors your kids screen time. It is another thing to tell a kid whose entire environment, whose school friends, whose school bullies, whose teachers, whose work friends all use these technologies and use them in a way that is increasingly causing social problems and say, “we can’t do anything about that other than let our parents be better about screen time.” We live in an environment and in a culture that is shaped by our laws and public policy, and we can’t hide from that fact anymore.
The question conservatives confront at this key moment is this: Whom do we serve? Do we serve pure, unfettered commercial freedom? Do we serve commerce at the expense of the public good? Or do we serve something higher? And are we willing to use political power to actually accomplish these things?
I serve my child, and it has become abundantly clear that I cannot serve two masters. I cannot defend commerce when it is used to addict his toddler brain to screens, and it will be used to addict his adolescent brain to pornography. I cannot defend the rights of drug companies to sell poison to his neighbours without any consequence, because those people chose to take those drugs.
It is time, as Ronald Reagan once said, for choosing, and I choose my son. I choose the civic constitution necessary to support and sustain a good life for him, and I choose a healthy American nation so necessary to defend and support that civic constitution.
This is an edited version of a speech entitled ‘Beyond Libertarianism’, delivered by JD Vance at the National Conservatism: Founding Conference in Washington DC on 16 July