The Coddling of American Agency

This article was originally published on Medium.

The United States has become the beacon of progress and prosperity for the world because, since its founding, Americans have embraced a vibrant culture of entrepreneurship, a strong work ethic, and an optimistic sense of aspiration. The promise of the American Dream is about the opportunity to live better, richer, and fuller lives. However, recent policy conversations have turned from an emphasis on economic dynamism to a focus on economic security, infused with an Us vs Them mentality centered on inequality. Certainly, many factors have influenced this shift, but, whether perceived or real, Americans increasingly reflect a diminished sense of individual agency. And as Americans lose their sense of agency, the dynamic spirit that fueled an unprecedented level of economic prosperity risks being lost.

The Coddling of the American Mind

The Coddling of the American Mind by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff was hailed by many as one of the best books of 2018. Based on their Atlantic article by the same name, the book discusses what has happened across college campuses in recent years in a succinct and substantive way. Haidt and Lukianoff focus readers’ attention on several negative trends in universities, and society at large, that have come to exist not because of any grand plan but rather because of detrimental cultural, political, and (most importantly) parenting issues. These often originate from good intentions, but have led to an increase in fragility among college students and recent graduates.

The book discusses these issues in the context of three great untruths that are permeating university campuses and impacting the sense of agency among young Americans. These untruths are The Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker; the Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always trust your feelings, and the Untruth of Us Versus Them: Life is a battle between good people and evil people.

According to the authors:

These three Great Untruths — and the policies and political movements that draw on them — are causing problems for young people, universities, and, more generally, liberal democracies. To name just a few of these problems: Teen anxiety, depression, and suicide rates have risen sharply in the last few years.

The three Great Untruths have flowered on many college campuses, but they have their roots in earlier education and childhood experiences, and they now extend from the campus into the corporate world and the public square, including national politics. They are also spreading outward from American universities to universities throughout the English-speaking world. These Great Untruths are bad for everyone. Anyone who cares about young people, education, or democracy should be concerned about these trends.

The Decline of Dynamism: The Untruth of Fragility Goes Mainstream

One of the more important untruths affecting Americans’ sense of agency is the untruth of fragility. This untruth and the behavior it encourages are making kids less resilient. In the book Haidt and Lukianoff show how this has led to a culture of safetyism and catastrophizing, which undermines a culture of exploration and the search for truth on university campuses. But as students embrace a mentality that insists whatever decisions or choices we make in today’s context might be catastrophic, fewer are willing to engage in big thinking or take big risks, preferring instead to just playing it safe.

Additionally, fragility can play a negative role when young adults enter the labor market. Research from Nobel Laureate James Heckman and surveys from employers both confirm that soft skills are either as important or more important than cognitive skills. A culture of safetyism can directly influence and hinder the development of some of the most important soft skills that are valued in the labor market. Or, equally as important, safetyism can impair child development more broadly, preventing kids from learning emotional skills like working well under pressure, developing self-confidence, or being able to learn from and accept criticism.

Another great book by George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen, The Complacent Class, outlines some trends that we might expect from a generation of people who are more fragile than their predecessors. Even though his book precedes The Coddling, in The Complacent Class, Cowen details how the United States and its people have become more static, more complacent, and less restless.

Cowen shows how Americans are less likely to change any aspects of their lives or embrace change. They are less likely to switch jobs, less likely to move around the country, and even less likely to go outside the house at all. For example, the interstate migration rate has been falling steadily, and there is also a lot of matching and pairing of like with like either in marriage, neighborhoods, or associational life, which contributes for a perpetuation of the status quo.

Focusing on the issue of business dynamism, Cowen goes through a lot of data around the decline in new business startups since the 1970s. Furthermore, Cowen notes that, despite increased regulations and occupational licensing requirements, the decline could also signal a trend of increased risk aversion and more complacency among Americans.

The impact of the decline in business dynamism was recently echoed by John Lettieri, CEO of the Economic Innovation Group, during a recent congressional hearing:

Over the past several decades, the startup rate, defined as the percent of all firms in the economy that started in the past year, has declined across virtually all regions and sectors of the economy. It fell steadily through the 1980s and 1990s before collapsing with the Great Recession. Troublingly, the national economic recovery has done little to improve the rate of business formation. Startup activity finally picked up in 2016, as the rate of new business creation improved to 8.4 percent. Yet even that post-recession high left the startup rate 2 percentage points below its long-run average.

….

How does this translate for American workers? It means that each and every year since the Great Recession, 100,000 fewer new companies have come online to compete for their labor.

Additionally, despite low unemployment figures, labor force participation remains low and hasn’t picked up. Some have said it’s because there is less demand for workers, but other researchers, such as Scott Winship, have shown that there seems to be less interest in work altogether. Could it be that people who have stopped looking for work and are out of the labor force have lost their sense of agency?

Policy Focus Has Shifted from Dynamism to Security

Policy conversations on inequality, high costs of living, and the risk of future automation have an increasingly adopted a tone of alarmism and a strong focus on top-down economic security. Indeed, there are now entire organizations built around the premise of economic security and others dedicated to expanding cash transfers to compensate for increases in the cost of living. A 2015 report by the Pew Research Trust found that 9 in 10 Americans prefer financial stability over upward income mobility. In the midst of his 2012 reelection campaign, the Obama administration released The Life of Julia, meant to showcase a vision of how a person can go through life relying on the security of federal government programs and services rather than relying on personal improvement, social connections, or community support.

This mentality has also impacted the kinds of policies that lawmakers and candidates are willing to propose. There are now policy proposals on how to grant a federal jobs guarantee as a way to ensure full employment. Almost half of Americans, 48 percent, support some sort of Universal Basic Income (UBI). Presidential candidate Andrew Yang has based his entire policy program on a UBI, or “Freedom Dividend” as he calls it.

Meanwhile, the economy is almost at full employment with no job guarantee whatsoever. Fears of automation have been greatly overblown, and we should ask if ultimately a UBI does anything to solve the issues proponents raise. Those worried about the cost of living and economic security in a serious way should explore taking a bolder approach to meeting these challenges. Rather than accommodating them, address structural problems head on by reforming zoning laws, increasing choices and competition in education and healthcare. Ultimately, removing barriers to opportunity and increasing the opportunity for upward social mobility will be far more effective than band-aid solutions with flashy names and empty promises.

Looking for Someone to Blame: The Untruth of Us vs. Them Goes Mainstream

The second untruth discussed in The Coddling, the untruth of Us Vs. Them, is also clearly mirrored in our current political culture. Both the left and right are inculcating a mentality that there is someone or some group of people actively conspiring against our agency and free choice. As this mentality sinks in, people feel less inclined to act and instead insist that the rules of the game are rigged against them. Although there have been times in the history of the United States where structural barriers have intentionally been put in place to deny particular groups of people access to opportunity (and some might even continue to exist in some form), the mantra of American agency has always included a can-do attitude and an optimism that those barriers can be overcome. But alas, an Us. Vs. Them mentality encourages inaction, complacency, and a belief that nothing we can do will help our situation.

Among the most prevalent strains of this thinking can be found within certain discussions of racial inequality in America. The United States will always carry the shame of slavery and it is indisputable that the corrupt institution has at least some lingering effects on African Americans today. Despite that legacy, researchers Brad Wilcox, Wendy Wang, and Ronald Mincy have found that countless African Americans have achieved economic success and continue to do so in modern America.

Moreover, their study shows that individual agency definitely matters, specifically for black men. They explain:

Black men who score above average in their sense of agency — measured by reports that they feel like they are determining the course of their own lives versus feeling like they do not have control over the direction of their lives — as young men or teenagers in the late 1970s are more likely to be prosperous later in life. Specifically, 52% of black men who had a higher sense of agency as young men made it into at least the middle class when they reached age 50, compared to 44% of their peers who did not have that sense of agency.

Additionally, other studies on race and opportunity have shown that there are no big differences on rates of social mobility among black and white women.

Certainly, many African Americans face a unique set of challenges to overcome when climbing the income ladder, but a subset of cultural critics would have Americans believe that such challenges are simply insurmountable due to a cabal of string-pullers hellbent on keeping them down. In his famous book Between the World and Me, author Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, “White America’ is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control our bodies.”

Such a radical position erases the power of individual agency to overcome challenges and invites readers to embrace a view that justifies defeatism. It is not contradictory to believe that because of past injustices, certain American populations will have a relatively harder time achieving economic success than others, while also rejecting the view that “whiteness” itself possesses mystical powers waiting to be unleashed, as Coates has written elsewhere. But this kind of thinking is by no means isolated to a subset of racial discussions taking place on the political left.

A cornerstone of President Trump’s campaign and presidency has been to assure voters in economically depressed areas (usually majority white and relatively rural) that they bear no blame for their current economic malaise and no responsibility for improving their situation. Instead, their lackluster economic prospects stem from immigrants who desire to steal their jobs or from greedy “globalists” and “elites” who have conspired against them to eliminate their jobs and economic wellbeing. In January, Fox News host Tucker Carlson delivered a now infamous monologue that put the blame for any economic malaise that Americans are experiencing squarely on those who have economically succeeded in recent years, saying:

We are ruled by mercenaries who feel no long-term obligation to the people they rule. They’re day traders. Substitute teachers. They’re just passing through. They have no skin in this game, and it shows. They can’t solve our problems. They don’t even bother to understand our problems.

There is a kernel of truth in that increased globalization and free trade has shifted the makeup of the American economy and the positive and negative effects of these shifts have had different regional effects. But by transforming these gradual and undirected economic shifts that occurred across decades into a concerted effort by some disembodied group of conspirators, the disaffection felt by those experiencing these challenges is better able to be harnessed for political purposes. In any case, the central message is clear: There are some people who are against “us” and it is our duty to fight “them.” Beyond electoral politics, the role for individual agency has all but vanished.

No doubt there is an appeal in hearing a message that plans not working out are inherently due to persons or systems out of one’s control. The modern champions of these ideas will always find an eager audience. It’s easier to blame broad structural issues and societal context than taking responsibility and exercising personal agency. Blaming super structures and systems might feel better and be easier because we’re attacking an abstract concept and not some individual in particular. We can generalize our problems away into an abstract, granting a lot of latitude as to how to argue against one’s personal responsibility. No matter the source, we need to turn away from the temptation to blame disembodied “forces” exercising complete control over our destinies and rediscover our agency.

Reviving American Agency

Reversing this trend requires a multipronged approach. First, as discussed in The Coddling of the American Mind, Haidt and Lukianoff suggest that we should embrace Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, increase the amount of free play to foster more resilient kids, and embrace simple suggestions like encouraging parents to not fill job applications for their kids.

Jonathan Haidt and Lenore Skenazy took a big and much needed first step by starting Let Grow, a nonprofit working towards “future proofing” kids and making them, their parents, and society as a whole more resilient and anti-fragile. A book Haidt and Lukianoff continually reference while discussing the untruth of fragility is Nasim Taleb’s Antifragile, which details how organisms, institutions, and people actually become antifragile and stronger when faced against stressors and problems. The key insight is that by protecting people from facing challenges, they are made weaker and less able to handle future challenges that they will inevitably encounter.

Furthermore, the work of psychologist Angela Duckworth focuses on how grit and perseverance are key to agency and success. Through the Character Lab, Duckworth and her team provide strategies and insights to enhance grit in students, preparing them for success later in life. By encouraging students to be more adaptive and confront challenges, they are able to learn the power and potential of applying their agency to the problems they confront.

Of course, there were and are many barriers preventing the exercise of personal agency for various groups. However, even in challenging times and situations, agency has played a pivotal role for many Americans. Asserting one’s own agency in difficult times is a brave act of defiance and it serves as one of the key drivers of the American Dream.

There are still artificial and natural barriers that stand in the way of people acting on their agency. But the existence of barriers is not an excuse to abdicate responsibility or stop short from chasing our dreams and aspirations. In the economic mobility debate, there is a distinction between what can be called “artificial” and “natural” barriers to economic mobility, and both need to be addressed.

Artificial barriers to upward economic mobility relate to legislation, administrative rules, and special interests. Natural barriers are the internal part of the equation, preventing people from thriving and they include, among other things, issues such as character, sense of meaning, personality traits, soft skills, culture, and other highly context-specific challenges which make them more personal and local in nature. The role for policy solutions or government programs in lifting the natural barriers people face is much more limited. Despite some potential policy measures, lifting these natural barriers require personal and relational solutions and are better left addressed by institutions of civil society working on-the-ground directly with the least advantaged. Importantly, a deep sense of agency is required to face these natural barriers successfully.

When it comes to encouraging more business dynamism and entrepreneurship, there is a great deal that can be done by addressing artificial barriers in the form of removing unnecessary regulations and occupational licensing rules that discourage business creation. The Center for American Entrepreneurship provides some interesting policy proposals and Lettieri’s Economic Innovation Group was at the forefront of the recently enacted opportunity zones, designed to boost investment in distressed communities. Occupational licensing laws have been shown to decrease dynamism, employment opportunities, and are linked to lower levels of economic mobility and higher levels of income inequality. To increase labor force participation, Scott Winship suggests reforming disability insurance.

For natural barriers, the most effective work is being done by organizations striving to help individuals face problems on a personal level. There are countless examples of effective organizations working in this area and the Stand Together Foundation serves as a network for some of these groups. The organizations share a focus on bottom-up solutions that cater to the individual needs of each person, rather than attempting to shoehorn them into cookie-cutter programs designed for the masses.

Conclusion: Agency and the American Dream

One of the most pressing questions of our time is whether the American dream is still alive, if it’s fading, nonexistent, or if it’s simply out of reach for most Americans. While a definitive answer has been elusive, policymakers, scholars, and analysts should consider the available evidence. One way to approach answering this question is by polling and gauging the public’s opinion on the matter. The Pew Research Center conducted a poll two years ago asking people what they thought about the American Dream.

The majority of Americans from all groups say they have achieved their American Dream or are on their way to achieving it. Only 17 percent said the American Dream is out of reach. This can and should be better, but it is still encouraging. Lately, it seems many politicians, public intellectuals, and media personalities would have us think that the American Dream is dead, perhaps killed by forces beyond our control.

As Pew reports: “Notably, there are no significant racial or ethnic differences in the shares who say the American dream is out of reach for their families.” Overall, a large majority of people in every group believe that their family has achieved or is on its way to achieving their American Dream.

The largest number of respondents, 77 percent, said freedom of choice in how to live is essential to their view of the American Dream. The significance of this cultural attitude in what Americans believe constitutes the American Dream shouldn’t be understated.

Agency is not the be all and end all of what matters. There are certainly a wide variety of issues that play into success, both in childhood and adult life. But the belief in the power of individual agency is the base upon which the United States was built. The American Dream relies on agency, especially as people report that the most essential aspect of the American Dream is the freedom to live how they choose.

Madame CJ Walker embodied this triumph of agency by overcoming the arduous challenges of being born to parents who were freed slaves, becoming an orphan from a young age, and then became a single mother. Despite that adversity, she became the first self-made female millionaire and summarized her success with the following quote: “I got my start by giving myself a start.”

The era of CJ Walker included a different kind of narrative for America, it was the time of Horatio Alger and his rags to riches stores, a time where the country and its people were still very dynamic and there was still unexplored territory to be settled.

This cultural attitude and belief in the power of agency is directly related to the culture of achievement and striving to pursue one’s American Dream. The search for a better life has always been a central part of living in the United States, regardless of social context or wherever anyone started in life. This was a central, if often unspoken, component of the great stories of Horatio Alger, who even though is mostly forgotten today, was an immense figure in 19th century America. In the 20th century rags to riches narratives and agency centered attitudes were enshrined into the American ethos by other authors like Dale Carnegie or Napoleon Hill. In a slightly different way, a new wave of authors in this tradition are Jordan Peterson, David Goggins, Gary Vaynerchuk, or Jocko Willinik. All of these people have grown an increasing following on social media by speaking about agency, responsibility, and taking ownership of one’s life.

Rediscovering the power of American agency is an essential task in meeting the challenges of our time. Americans must come to see that the untruths of fragility and us vs. them, are indeed untrue. There are problems and barriers to success, but they can be overcome. Rather than tacitly accepting the mainstream cultural narratives that encourage complacency and emphasize security, we can rekindle our dynamic roots and face the future with dreams of opportunity and the confidence in our agency to take on any socioeconomic problem.

Gonzalo Schwarz is the Founder and CEO of the Archbridge Institute, a Washington, D.C. based public policy think tank focused on removing barriers to human flourishing.

Gonzalo Schwarz, President and CEO of the Archbridge Institute, has written numerous articles and op-eds in that capacity, on topics ranging from the importance of entrepreneurship and the health of the American Dream to trends in economic mobility and inequality.