Lord of the Flies is a book I read in high school. It is fiction. Experts say it is about loss of innocence and about the constant conflict between savagery and civilization. Heavy stuff. I was thinking about Lord of the Flies because I keep searching for explanations for current political behavior.
Maybe it was Lord of the Flies that formed me. Maybe it was Atlas Shrugged. Maybe I am giving away more about myself than I should. I also loved Hesse's Magister Ludi. But the point is that today we are suffering from an age of optimism. How can one suffer from optimism, you ask?
Optimism is good. But we can suffer from optimism after events start to shake our foundations. In Lord of the Flies, an airplane carrying schoolchildren crashes on a deserted island. The children are very civilized English kids. But it doesn’t take long for the tea and crumpets to disappear and for raw human behavior to take over.
Which made me think about today. We are optimistic. We think of ourselves as being sophisticated and mature. We know we are much better than those savages that lived hundreds of years ago. We go to school for many years and we become experts on things. We can afford to buy and read books. We give money to worthy charities. We value finding balance between work and play. We take time to worry about those who are less fortunate than ourselves, and we devote time and thought to helping them.
We do all this because we can. We are not living in caves, and we are not constantly threatened by beasts lurking outside our caves. Productivity allows us to work less, and labor saving devices let us manage our non-work lives with minimal effort. We don’t have to grow our own food, and we don’t usually make our clothing.
We are incredibly civilized and nice. Think about politics and government in the US. In the past eight years, we devoted ourselves to equality and fairness. Okay, maybe we didn’t get any medals for achievement but the Obama administration and the Democratic Party reminded us continually about the unfairness that remains in our modern and rich society. And today as we discuss healthcare, tax reform, and government debt, we cannot escape expectations that any and all reforms be fair and not abandon those with lower incomes.
I am not complaining. I am just describing what is. We are a very optimistic, caring society. Those little English boys came from a very caring society before their plane crashed on that fictional island.
What then brought out their savage sides? The savagery arose when the society they used to know vanished and was replaced by fear and uncertainty. Living on a deserted island isn’t easy. It is downright scary. Living right before the great recession was not so bad. Economic growth, employment, and wages were good. Income inequality worsened but overall we felt pretty good.
But then the recession pulled the rug out from under us. Like landing on a far-away island, we “landed” on a new economy full of perils. And worse than the actual dismal economic effects were the thoughts that our economic system had failed us. Every time the government added a new stimulus package and/or a new regulation, they sent out a message that said, "Times have changed for the worse, we don’t know where this is heading, and we are going to have to do very extreme things to save the day. But don’t worry, the government is here to save us all."
If that isn’t scarier than a plane wreck and a deserted island, then I don’t know what is. Obama’s team was cool as they went about turning this country upside down. Whether it was cars for clunkers or some crazy Dodd-Frank program that took a wrecking ball to small banks, they plowed ahead to forge a new world.
This is not to criticize either the Bush or Obama administrations. It is meant to be a description of what we have been through since 2008. Bam, there you are on a deserted island that only mildly resembles your previous home and bam, people start trying to fix things.
The result in Lord of the Flies was horrible. As the boys grappled with life-threatening issues, the worst of their personalities came to the surface. As the US economy struggles to regain its balance, we are seeing the same kinds of things. It’s not just our political leaders. It is all of us. We thought we were sophisticated but to me, it isn’t sophisticated to treat your friends and neighbors with disregard at best, rudeness at worst.
Sadly, Lord of the Flies resolved nothing. The book ends when the boys are rescued by adults. They go back to being boys again. How is our book going to end? Who is going to save us from ourselves? When will we be able to go back to not walking on eggshells whenever we discuss current economic policies? When will we kiss and make up?