This past weekend I had the happy responsibility of running a small workshop that included, among notable others, my favorite political philosopher, Wendy McElroy, and Chuck Freund and Nick Gillespie of Reason. We shacked up in a quaint art deco hotel off Dupont Circle, ate in swell restaurants, and talked at length about human cognition, social networks, and other heady stuff. Good work if you can get it.
Anyway, listening to Nick and Chuck about the plenitude of market culture inspired a few thoughts perhaps worth developing. Their line, roughly, is that popular culture spawned of free markets and unregulated minds provides a panoply of opportunities to construct a personally meaningful identity, and this is good.
Now, let me elaborate, according to my best understanding. We need our lives to mean something. One way we make our lives mean something is by fitting ourselves into a narrative in which we matter and our striving has some kind of point. The stories of our lives involve a cast of other characters, and we want to go forward in our stories together with these folks, to be part of a community that matters and has some kind of point. Communities that matter are organized around artifacts, symbols, songs, ways of playing and taking pleasure. And lives that matter have a character, a style — there’s something that it looks like and sound like and feels life to live a life with a point, be it punk life or Mormon life.
Market cultures produce the artifacts, symbols, songs, styles, and whatnot in heretofore impossible abundance, and this abundance makes possible new kinds of lives and new kinds of meaning. This is liberating, because not just any story or form of life will do. We each come into the world a certain way: with talents, tempers and personality. And the world we come into pushes onto us and fills the open spaces of our native dispositions. When it comes time to worry about life’s having a point, we’ve already become something semi-solid — pliable, but only so pliable — and the stories, communities, and styles we inherit may not be the sorts of things we can squeeze ourselves into or take much meaning from. Your father’s Oldsmobile might bore you; your father’s life might crush you. So it’s good for us that there’s this wealth of potential meaning laying ready in the record shops, in the bookstores, in the boutiques, bars and concert halls, in the vast menu of professions. We can find the story we need to play out, the artifacts that define our rituals, and the communities to share them with.
Well then, it’s milk and honey for everyone, is it? Of course not. There are complications. None of us come equipped with an internal sensor that lights upon finding the right life. And some kinds of life are plain unhealthy, damaging, and wrong. We’re pliable, but only so pliable. It’s easy to fuck up.
With that in mind we can imagine two main strategies for meaning identification: risk averse and risk seeking. A risk averse meaning seeker is likely to conform with an extant lifestyle package that has proven itself reliable in meaning provision. He will, as the economists say, “satisfice,” figuring that the meaning gained will be “good enough.” (The strategy is conservative, but the package one adopts in prudence needn’t be conservative in the social or political sense; there are boho risk averse meaning seekers.) A risk seeking meaning seeker will search for a lifestyle package that provides the ultimate fit, even in the face of the possibility of the search ending badly in a self-destructive spiral of ennui and self-loathing.
An extreme risk seeking meaning seeker is the “lifestyle entrepreneur” who will not only search for a good fit, but will customize a lifestyle package whole cloth and recruit others to buy in. Imagine the pioneer of a vegetarian free-love commune. There’s a very good chance that things will go badly, and that the entrepreneur will go spiritually bankrupt. But like her economic counterpart, we all have a lot to gain from those who engage in risk seeking behavior. We risk averse types need people willing to make forays into that dauntingly huge field of possibility in which all beautiful things are found. When the entrepreneur comes back with something that works, that really makes life better and more meaningful, we all win. Sooner or later, even the most risk averse bring the treasure to their comfortable lifestyle cocoons.
If the entrepreneur comes back with a wrecked life, then she loses. And we lose too when the entrepreneurs take our friends and children with them. But as long as little Stevie joined the commune of his own volition, we should withhold our state sanctioned wrath. Failure is part of the search. The U.S. is remarkably lenient on bankruptcies, and we should be lenient on spiritually bankrupt lifestyle entrepreneurs for similar reasons. The risk seekers are the treasure hunters. They may make stuff no one really wants. They may live lives no one would want to have (or for that matter smell). But they might come up with jazz, or the United States of America. We all want better, more interesting, more fitting, more meaningful, lives, but most of us are too timorous to seek it ourselves. So we must keep wide the gates to the space of possible lives, and trust the intrepid to return to us with bounties of meaning.