This essay is an abridged version of a speech originally delivered on July 16, 2019, at the National Conservatism Conference in Washington, D.C.
I want to talk a little bit about the American dream, because I think it animates so much of what we think about and talk about. My book Hillbilly Elegy is really an exploration of the American dream as it was experienced by me and my family and the broader community in which I lived. And in a very important way it chronicled a real decline in the American dream—though not because people weren't consuming as much as they have in the past. Hillbilly Elegy is a story about family decline, childhood trauma, opioid abuse, community decline, the decline of the manufacturing sector, and the loss of dignity and purpose and meaning that come along with it.
I grew up in a pretty rough environment, and what the American dream meant to me was that I had a decent enough job to support my family and that I could be a good husband and a good father. That's what I most wanted out of my life. It wasn't the American dream of the striver. It wasn't the American dream, frankly, that I think animates much of this town. I didn't care if I went to an Ivy League law school, I didn't care if I wrote a best-selling book, I didn't care if I had a lot of money. What I wanted was to be able to give my family and my children the things that I hadn't had as a kid: That was the sense in which the American dream mattered most to me.
That American dream is undoubtedly in decline. I want to talk a little bit about why I think that's happening and what a conservative politics has to do in response, but I think a first step is to distinguish between a conservative politics and a libertarian politics. I don't mean to criticize libertarianism. I first learned about conservatism as an idea from Friedrich Hayek. The Road to Serfdom is one of the best books that I've ever read about conservative thought. But in an important way I believe that conservatives have outsourced our economic and domestic policy thinking to libertarians.
Because that is such a loaded word, and because labels mean different things to different people, I want to define it as precisely as I can. So if you don't consider yourself a libertarian under this definition, I apologize: What I'm going after is the view that so long as public outcomes and social goods are produced by free individual choices, we shouldn't be too concerned about what those goods ultimately produce. For example, in Silicon Valley, it is common for neuroscientists to make much more at technology companies like Apple and Facebook—where they quite literally are making money addicting our children to devices and applications that warp their brains—than neuroscientists who are trying to cure Alzheimer's.
I know a lot of libertarians will say, “that is the consequence of free choices,” or “that is the consequence of people buying and selling labor on an open market and so long as there isn't any government coercion in that relationship, we shouldn't be so concerned about it.” But what I'm arguing is that conservatives should be concerned about it. We should be concerned that our economy is geared more toward developing applications than curing terrible diseases. We should care about a whole host of public goods, and should actually be willing to use politics and political power to accomplish some of those public goods.
Now, I want to tell a story—one of the most heartbreaking stories I've heard since my book came out. It’s about a woman I met in southeastern Ohio, which is ground zero for the opioid problem and many of the other social problems in this country. She was telling me about a young patient she had who had become addicted to opioids. He was eight years old and already addicted to Percocets. This kid became addicted by doing drug runs for his family, who were drug addicts and sometimes bought and sold on the side. Because they didn't have a lot of money, if he made a successful drug run they would actually give him a Percocet as a reward. That was how this kid became addicted to opioids at the tender age of eight.
I think there's a tendency in our politics on the right to look at this kid and say, “You know, it's a tragedy what's happened to him, but it's fundamentally a tragedy that political power can't touch. His parents need to make better decisions.” This child, God willing, needs to make better decisions when he grows up, but that ignores the way in which human beings actually live their lives. This kid lives in a community that has too few spare dollars to spend on a kid, but has too many spare opioids. That is a political problem. That is something that we decided to do using political power. We allowed commercial actors to sell these drugs into our communities. We allowed our regulatory state to approve these drugs and to do nothing when it was clear that these substances were starting to affect our communities. That was a political choice, and political power can actually fix it.
That kid lives in a community where even if he makes good choices later in life, there are virtually no good jobs for a kid of his educational status and social class if he wants to earn a decent wage. Those jobs in his community have largely gone overseas—thanks to forces of globalization that we unleashed because of political choices. We made the choice that we wanted that kid to be able to buy cheaper consumer goods at Walmart instead of have access to a good job, and maybe that was a defensible choice—I don't think it was—but it was a choice, and we have to stop pretending that it wasn't. Globalization and the damage that it wreaks are political choices.
And as this kid ages—if we want this kid to live the American dream—he needs good jobs. He needs to live in a community that isn't ravaged by opioid problems. He certainly needs to make good individual choices and exercise personal responsibility—I don't think conservatives should discard our focus on that. But as he ages, he will encounter other circumstances and other environments that are influenced, again, by the political choices that we make.
I have been blown away by some of the research I've seen in the past year on how pornography warps young adolescent minds. We know that young adults are marrying less. They're having fewer children. They're engaging in healthy and productive relationships less and less. And we know that at least one of the causes of this is that we have allowed pornography, under the guise of libertarianism, to seep into our youngest minds through the channels of the Internet. Again, we made a political choice that the freedom to consume pornography was more important than public goods like marriage and family and happiness. We can't ignore the fact that we made that choice, and we shouldn't shy away from the fact that we can make new choices in the future.
Even if this kid marches through the opioid epidemic, even if he makes it through and finds himself in a healthy relationship, and wants to do the thing that I defined as core to my American Dream—start a family and have happy and healthy children—he will confront a society, a culture, and a market economy that is more hostile to people having children than perhaps at any other period in American history.
There are a lot of ways to measure a healthy society, but the most important way to measure a healthy society is by whether a nation is having enough children to replace itself. Do people look to the future and see a place worth having children in? Do they have economic prospects and the expectation that they're going to be able to put a good roof over that kid's head, food on the table, and provide that child with a good education? By every statistic that we have, people are answering “no” to all of those questions. Our people aren't having enough children to replace themselves. That should bother us.
Now, I know some libertarians will say, “Well that choice comes from free individuals. If people are choosing not to have children, if they're choosing to spend their money on vacations, or nicer cars, or nicer apartments, then we should be okay with that.” And I think there is a good libertarian-sympathetic response to that. We could point out, for example, that areas of the world with fewer children are less dynamic. We could point out that we have a social safety net that's entirely built on the idea that you will have more people coming into the system than retiring, and that therefore we need children being born.
But I think that to make this about economics is to grant too much of a premise that we don't want to grant. Because when I think about my own life, the thing that has made my life best is the fact that I'm the father of a two-year-old son. When I think about the demons of my own childhood and the way that those demons have melted away in the love and laughter of my own son, when I see friends of mine who have grown up in tough circumstances, who have become fathers and become more connected to their communities, to their families, to their faith because of the role of their own children, I say we want babies not just because they're economically useful. We want more babies because children are good, and we believe children are good because we're not sociopaths.
Libertarians are not heartless, and I don't mean to suggest that they are. I think they often recognize many of the same problems that we recognize, but they are so uncomfortable with political power, or so skeptical of whether political power can accomplish anything, that they don't want to actually use it to solve or even address some of these problems.
But to me, ignoring the fact that we have political choices, or pretending that there aren't political choices to be made, is itself a political choice. The failure to use political power that the public has given is a choice, and it's a choice that has increasingly had, and I think increasingly will have, incredibly dire consequences for ourselves and our families.
A popular libertarian author talks a lot about the decline of community, the decline of family, the fact that people aren't marrying as much, that they're spending more time on social media, that they feel increasingly isolated, and that in part because of that isolation we're seeing skyrocketing rates of youth suicide. This author is smart about the fact that technology is at least part of the reason why we're seeing all these trends.
But if you think those things are problems—if you think children killing themselves is a problem, if you think people not having families, not getting married, and feeling more isolated are problems—then you need to be willing to use political power when it's appropriate to actually solve those problems. If people are spending too much time addicted to devices designed to addict them, we can't just blame consumer choice. We have to blame ourselves for not doing something. If people are killing themselves because they're being bullied in online chat rooms, we can't just say that parents need to exercise more responsibility.
We live in an environment that’s shaped by our laws and public policy, and we cannot hide from that fact anymore. I think the question conservatives confront at this key moment is this: Whom do we serve? Do we serve pure, unfettered commercial freedom? Do we serve commerce at the expense of the public good? Or do we serve something higher? And are we willing to use political power to actually accomplish those things?
My answer is simple: I serve my child. And it has become abundantly clear that I cannot serve two masters. I cannot defend commerce when it is used to addict his toddler brain to screens, and to addict his adolescent brain to pornography. I cannot defend the rights of drug companies to sell poison to his neighbors without any consequences because those people chose to take those drugs.
It is time, as Ronald Reagan once said, for choosing. And I choose my son, I choose the civic constitution necessary to support and sustain a good life form, and I choose the healthy American nation necessary to defend and support that civic constitution.
J. D. Vance is the author of Hillbilly Elegy.