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Monday, August 19, 2013

Reading List: Enjoy the Decline

Clarey, Aaron. Enjoy the Decline. Seattle: CreateSpace, 2013. ISBN 978-1-4802-8476-0.
Many readers may find this book deeply cynical, disturbing, and immoral. I found it cynical, disturbing, and immoral, but also important, especially for younger people who wish to make the most of their lives and find themselves in a United States in an epoch in which it is, with the consent of the majority, descending into a grey collectivist tyranny and surveillance state, where productive and creative people are seen as subjects to be exploited to benefit an ever-growing dependent class which supports the state which supports them.

I left the United States in 1991 and have only returned since for brief visits with family or to attend professional conferences. Since 2001, as the totalitarian vibe there has grown rapidly, I try to make these visits as infrequent as possible, my last being in 2011. Since the 1990s, I have been urging productive people in the U.S. to consider emigrating but, with only a couple of exceptions, nobody has taken this advice. I've always considered this somewhat odd, since most people in the U.S. are descended from those who left their countries of birth and came there to escape tyranny and seek opportunity. But most people in the U.S. seem to recoil from the idea of leaving, even as their own government becomes more repressive and exploits them to a greater extent than the regimes their ancestors fled.

This book is addressed to productive people (primarily young ones with few existing responsibilities) who have decided to remain in the United States. (Chapter 10 discusses emigration, and while it is a useful introduction to the topic, I'd suggest those pondering that option read Time to Emigrate? [January 2007], even though it is addressed to people in the United Kingdom.) The central message is that with the re-election of Obama in 2012, the U.S. electorate have explicitly endorsed a path which will lead to economic and geopolitical decline and ever-increasing exploitation of a shrinking productive class in favour of a growing dependent population. How is a productive person, what the author calls a “Real American”, to respond to this? One could dedicate oneself to struggling to reverse the trend through political activism, or grimly struggle to make the best of the situation while working hard even as more of the fruits of one's labour are confiscated. Alternatively, one can seek to “enjoy the decline”: face the reality that once a democratic society reaches the tipping point where more than half of the electorate receives more in government transfer payments than they pay in taxes it's game over and a new set of incentives have been put in place which those wishing to make the most of their lives must face forthrightly unless they wish to live in a delusional state.

In essence, the author argues, the definition of the “good life” is fundamentally transformed once a society begins the slide into collectivist tyranny. It is a fool's errand to seek to get an advanced education when that only burdens one with debt which will take most of a lifetime to repay and make capital formation in the most productive working years impossible. Home ownership, once the goal of young people and families, and their main financial asset, only indentures you to a state which can raise property taxes at any time and confiscate your property if you cannot pay. Marriage and children must be weighed, particularly by men, against the potential downside in case things don't work out, which is why, increasingly, men are going on strike. Scrimping and saving to contribute to a retirement plan is only piling up assets a cash-strapped government may seize when it can't pay its bills, as has already happened in Argentina and other countries.

What matters? Friends, family (if you can get along with them), having a good time, making the most of the years when you can hike, climb mountains, ride motorcycles way too fast, hunt, fish, read books that interest you, and share all of this and more with a compatible companion. And you're doing this while your contemporaries are putting in 60 hour weeks, seeing half or more of their income confiscated, and hoping to do these things at some distant time in the future, assuming their pensions don't default and their retirement funds aren't stolen or inflated away.

There are a number of things here which people may find off-putting, if not shocking. In chapter 7, the author discusses the “ ‘Smith and Wesson’ Retirement Plan”—not making any provision for retirement, living it up while you can, and putting a bullet in your head when you begin to fail. I suspect this sounds like a lot better idea when you're young (the author was 38 years old at the publication date of this book) than when you're getting closer to the checkered flag. In chapter 8, introduced by a quote from Ayn Rand, he discusses the strategy of minimising one's income and thereby qualifying for as many government assistance programs as possible. Hey, if the people have legitimately voted for them, why not be a beneficiary instead of the sucker who pays for them?

Whatever you think of the advice in this book (which comes across as sincere, not satirical), the thing to keep in mind is that it is an accurate description of the incentives which now exist in the U.S. While it's unlikely that many productive people will read this book and dial their ambitions back into slacker territory or become overt parasites, what's important is the decisions made on the margin by those unsure how to proceed in their lives. As the U.S. becomes poorer, weaker, and less free, perhaps the winners, at least on a relative basis, will be those who do not rage against the dying of the light or struggle to exist as they are progressively enslaved, but rather people who opt out to the extent possible and react rationally to the incentives as they exist. I would (and have) emigrated, but if that's not possible or thinkable, this book may provide a guide to making the best of a tragic situation.

The book contains numerous citations of resources on the Web, each of which is linked in the text: in the Kindle edition, clicking the link takes you to the cited Web page.

Posted at August 19, 2013 22:43