This article is longer and a bit thicker than most I post, but I think it gets to the core of many of our left/right debates. Personally, I land on the side of maintaining personal freedoms while practicing and encouraging a moral life in all of us.
Only through a reshaping of our principles and a reordering of the American economy, Mr. Sachs believes, can we become "a mindful society." We must abandon a culture that is defined by hard work and the striving for upward mobility and an economy that has unleashed unparalleled prosperity. Hard work impedes leisure. Ambition is a vice. Economic growth hurts the planet.
Mr. Sachs is right to dislike the greed and vulgarity that can accompany bourgeois life. But he is wrong to attribute these phenomena to capitalism uniquely. Discord and imperfection arise from human nature. The question is how they can be contained and redirected. Capitalism, together with our moral traditions, has long offered a solution consistent with individual freedom.
The freedom and independence of the American population can best be guaranteed by allowing the people to govern themselves through their elected representatives; by keeping limits on the size of government; and by encouraging each of us to take responsibility for our own well-being. We can best be aided by our families, communities, churches and local institutions—and by the government only as a last resort.
For, ultimately, Mr. Sachs's quarrel is with our founding principles of equality and liberty. Underlying the arguments in "The Price of Civilization" is a contention that the Constitution is too conducive to freedom, that it endorses an economic system too friendly to growth and the satisfaction of appetite, that it creates political institutions too inattentive to our national character.
The Founders thought of America as exceptional, but Mr. Sachs thinks that this claim is a myth and that the country's present greatness a historical aberration. Our decline is, thankfully, inevitable, he says: "America will not again dominate the world economy or geopolitics as it did in the immediate aftermath of World War II. That was a special historical moment; we can be glad that economic progress throughout the world is rapidly creating a more balanced global economy and society."
It is through this prism of decline that we may better understand Mr. Sachs's calls for an overbearing government to take more earnings from you and make more decisions for you, as well as his instructions for hard-working Americans to restrain their ambitions and accept their current place in life. He seeks nothing less than to replace the vision of the Founders—the ideals of individual liberty that have enabled America to achieve the unrivaled social, material and spiritual flourishing of the past two and a quarter centuries—with one that relies almost solely on the wisdom and beneficence of an intrusive, unlimited government.
The dialogue between capitalism and its critics is an old one, and it will continue. But as citizens of a self-governing nation, Americans must choose from time to time between alternative visions for our future.