Thought-Provoking Book Considers the State of the American Dream

Published May 1, 2017

Tyler Cowen’s The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream is a thought-provoking examination of what the American Dream is and how people reach it.

To support the book’s claims, the author uses economic and sociological data that are presented in an easily digested way.

Although The Complacent Class is an enjoyable read, Cowen could have used the same data to reach different conclusions. Nonetheless, the book provides much valuable information and insight.

Cowen’s book claims Americanism is synonymous with restlessness, refusing to be content with “good enough.” Identifying the expansionism of the 18th and 19th centuries as America’s zenith, Cowen writes the American dream for bigger and better things is being drained by “a certain level of social and emotional and indeed ideological acceptance—a presupposition—of slower change.”

This fight for the status quo, Cowen predicts, will lead to a cultural congealing and then cultural decay and collapse, if left unchecked.

Strongly Presented Arguments

Presenting data supporting both sides of an issue and siding with the favored premise is one hallmark of a strong mind, which Cowen undoubtedly possesses. Packing 191 detailed notes and 228 footnoted references into such a brief and well-written book is a task for only the most expert writers. Readers will close the book more fully informed about the true state of our world today.  

Cowen’s premise is controversial: American society has become more prosperous but also more averse to changes that may upset the status quo. Because people today are more prosperous, Cowen writes, they are more resistant to innovation and risk-taking.

“It involves people making decisions that are at first glance in their best interests—that is, they are economically and indeed socially rational decisions,” Cowen writes. “But the effects of these decisions at the societal level are significant, unintended, and not always good. They have made us more risk averse and more set in our ways, more segregated, and they have sapped us of the pioneer spirit that made America the world’s most productive and innovative economy. Furthermore, all this has happened at a time when we may need American dynamism more than ever before.”

Self-Sorting a Social Ill?

Cowen claims American culture is becoming balkanized and coming apart, arguing we have largely stopped seeking out new experiences and new people. However, the data he chooses to support this claim does not persuade. Cowen mentions so many positive trends that one can argue Americans have not become complacent or risk-adverse.

For example, he uses the clearly pejorative term “segregation” to describe the tendency of people to sort into relatively homogenous neighborhoods, but people have always done that. There is nothing uniquely American nor contemporary about such self-sorting.

Also, when arguing people’s use of technological advancements, such as Google or Facebook, increasingly involves just watching others’ interesting lives instead of actively living their own lives, Cowen ignores that these services didn’t exist to improve people’s lives until only recently, suggesting that culture and technology are not decelerating.

Connecting People with Things

Improving the accuracy of matching consumers’ wants with services and products is leading to more complacency and less interest in new experiences, Cowen writes.

“Even when we do get a big breakthrough, its impact is not in every way revolutionary,” Cowen writes. “Paradoxically, Americans can use innovative, ever more efficient information technology to slow down the change in many parts of life and to become more rather than less settled. … Spotify and Pandora match our taste in music. Software matches college roommates. LinkedIn matches executives and employees. Facebook helps us reconnect to our past—our old neighbors, our old boyfriends—and more generally even brings us to just the right news and advertisements, or at least what we think is just right.”

Studying the American Spirit 

Cowen artfully cites the observations of Alexis de Tocqueville, a French aristocrat and author of the 19th century classic Democracy in America, in describing the type of mindset Cowen believes to be essential to America’s past successes. Cowen seizes on de Tocqueville’s observations of Americans of the time as identifying “restlessness”—striving for different, more, and better—as what sparked the flame of American democracy. 

“If there is any primary theorist for the decline of American restlessness, it is Tocqueville, who understood that a static America might in the longer run have trouble maintaining the democratic spirit of the country and that an ongoing stasis was not the same as perpetual stability,” Cowen writes. “Whatever his fears for the future, Tocqueville’s basic portrait of the United States was of a land perpetually in motion. Democracy in America details a nation in ferment, in the process of becoming, and full of energy and ambition. Tocqueville noted that Americans were far more restless than the English, and furthermore this restlessness came from a great awareness of what they always were lacking.”

Warning Against Complacency

As with many of the other claims in The Complacent Class, I disagree which Cowen’s conclusion the American culture has become stagnant. Nonetheless, the idea has merit as a thought exercise and a warning against a decline of the nation’s spirit.

The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream is filled with useful and provocative facts and references, and I encourage readers to consider its challenging hypotheses with an open mind, even if one ultimately disagrees with the long-term predictions Cowen makes, as I did.