Ah, Look at All the Lonely People

Ah, Look at All the Lonely People

Last month, the U.S. Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, released an advisory report on the health risks posed by loneliness and isolation.  The advisory is a long and detailed document, running nearly 80 pages (including acknowledgments and footnotes).  It is a profoundly important and yet hopelessly misguided attempt to address a serious and worsening social crisis.  The Washington Post provides the details:

Loneliness presents a profound public health threat akin to smoking and obesity, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy warned in an advisory issued Tuesday that aims to rally Americans to spend more time with each other in an increasingly divided and digital society.

Murthy said half of U.S. adults experience loneliness, which has consequences for mental and physical health, including a greater risk of depression, anxiety — and, perhaps more surprisingly, heart disease, stroke and dementia….

The risk of premature death posed by social disconnection is similar to smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than obesity and physical inactivity, according to a review of research on social connection. And socially connected people live longer.

Loneliness can lead to chronic stress, which in turn causes inflammation that damages tissues and blood vessels and is associated with chronic conditions, experts say. Isolation and frayed social connections could make it harder to maintain or develop healthy habits such as exercise and good nutrition.

“This isn’t just people feeling good or bad about their social life,” said Julianne Holt-Lunstad, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University and lead science editor of the advisory. “It truly has an impact on our physical health.”

As we say, we agree with the premise that loneliness is a serious social crisis, one that is woefully underestimated and all too rarely discussed.  We don’t doubt for a second that it has a severely negative impact not just on mental health but on physical health as well.  It is, we’d guess, one of the most powerfully ironic drivers of the apparent social and political breakdown extant throughout the country.  As Aristotle rightly noted, “Man is, by nature, a social animal.”  And when he is not able to engage in normal, productive, personal social interaction, he instead either withers in his capacity to see others as mere social beings like himself or demands attention, engaging in abnormal, counterproductive, and impersonal demonstrations of self-validation.

The problem is that Dr. Murthy and his compatriots in the battle against loneliness and isolation appear to misunderstand the heart of the problem and, by extension, to misunderstand the solution to it.  Although Murthy et al. identify several culprits, not surprisingly, the culprit most aggressively singled out for its contribution to the loneliness epidemic is technology.  As they note (and highlight), “…the existing evidence illustrates that we have reason to be concerned about the impact of some kinds of technology use on our relationships, our degree of social connection, and our health.”

In response to technology and all of the other causes of social isolation, Murthy proposes a “national strategy to advance social connection.”  Among the components of this strategy are six pillars of action, including efforts to: “Strengthen Social Infrastructure in Local Communities; Enact Pro-Connection Public Policies; Mobilize the Health Sector; Reform Digital Environments; Deepen our Knowledge; [and] Cultivate a Culture of Connection.”  The Post elaborates:

Murthy said the federal government could fund research on loneliness to better understand the problem and identify the best interventions. He also urged different levels of government to prioritize social connection in policymaking, such as designing walkable communities that encourage residents to interact. Health-care providers could screen patients for signs of loneliness, Murthy said, while insurers could pay for programs that help people cultivate healthy relationships as a form of preventive care.

Again, to be clear, we agree with Murthy on much of this and appreciate his recognition of a problem.  And we agree inarguably that some technology exacerbates this problem.  At the same time, however, this whole effort is likely to be ineffective at the very least and, possibly, counterproductive.

What Murthy doesn’t get – and what he will never get, given that he was appointed as Surgeon General by both President Obama and President Biden – is that there is not a governmental solution to this problem.  ALL of the solutions he offers, all of the strategy “pillars” he promotes, indeed, the very idea behind this “advisory” report are all based on the notion that this problem can be addressed from the top-down.  Government can and should fix the problem!  This is a very Rousseau-ian encapsulation of the issue: if we just focus on getting the policies right, on making the institutions behave properly, on creating the framework in which the people are enabled to interact effectively, then we can solve everything and restore a sense of belonging and community to all citizens.

The truth of the matter is that government cannot be the solution to this problem because government is the cause of it.  Government cannot create “community” because government detests community.  Government is, in many ways, the opposite of community.  It loathes any authority other than itself and has long been intent on destroying such authority.  Or, as Russell Kirk famously put it:

All history, and especially modern history, is in some sense the account of the decline of community and the ruin consequent upon that loss. In this process, the rise of the modern State has been by far the most powerful influence. ‘The single most decisive influence upon Western social organization has been the rise and development of decentralized territorial state.’ There is every reason to regard the State in history as, to use a phrase fun gear, applied to Rousseau’s doctrine of the general will, ‘a process of permanent revolution.’ Hostile toward every institution which acts as a check upon its absolute power, the State has been engaged, ever since the decline of the medieval order, in stripping away one by one the functions and prerogatives of those ancient institutions which were the guardians of true community—aristocracy, church, guild, family, and local association.

What the state seeks is a tableland upon which a multitude of individuals, solitary though herded together, labor anonymously for the State’s maintenance. Universal military conscription and the ‘mobile labor force’ and the concentration–camp are only the more recent developments of the system. The ‘pulverizing macadamizing tendency of modern history’ which Maitland discerned is been brought to pass, in large part, by ‘the momentous conflicts of jurisdiction between the political State and the social associations line intermediate to it and the individual.’ The same processes may be traced in the history of Greece and of Rome; and the consequence, in the long run, was social ennui and political deaths. All those great gifts of variety, contrast, competition, communal pride, and sympathetic association which characterize man at his manliest are menaced by the ascendancy of the omnicompetent state, resolved for its own security to level the ramparts of traditional community.

There is no reason whatsoever to believe that the government that destroyed community could rebuild community, even if it wanted to.  And to be blunt, there is no reason whatsoever to believe that it would ever want to, Vivek Murthy’s facile protestations notwithstanding.

In the new book – Other People’s Money, due out sometime this fall/winter – I note the following about the beginning of the “modern era” that Kirk so rightly derides:

[I]f a date must be picked, then it seems logical to declare that the Modern Era began on June 28, 1712.  On that date (which should live in infamy), Isaac, a watchmaker in Geneva, and his wife Suzanne welcomed their second child, a son, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a delivery that Fredrich Nietzsche would, a century later, rightly call a “monstrous birth at the threshold of the new age.”

Although Rousseau clearly shares the title “father of the modern Left” with many of his Enlightenment contemporaries, notably his fellow Philosophes Diderot and Voltaire, he also clearly did more than most to undermine and destroy the existing social and political orders and to discombobulate the West.  Again, to borrow from Nietzsche, Rousseau was “the greatest revolutionizing force of the modern era.”…

Rousseau and his followers saw society’s institutions as the real threat to man’s freedom and happiness.  If man is good by nature, yet he behaves poorly under the direction and guidance of specific institutions, then the institutions must be corrupt.  They are clearly the cause of the aberrant behavior and must, therefore, be reformed – as thoroughly and as frequently as necessary to enable man to live as he should in a collective society.  As the historian Paul Johnson noted in his Intellectuals, to Rousseau, society or “culture” was an “evolving, artificial construct….”  But it nevertheless “dictated man’s behaviour,” meaning that “you could improve, indeed totally transform, his behaviour by changing the culture and the competitive forces, which produced it….”  In short, according to Rousseau, one can change the world by successfully changing its institutions….

Irving Babbitt, a literary critic and American proto-conservative, along with early conservative thinkers like Russell Kirk and Robert Nisbet, heaped additional scorn on Rousseau as the man who provided the intellectual justification and the political blueprint for the “centralization of authority” that Tocqueville so feared.  As Nisbet noted, “It was Rousseau’s subtle achievement to clothe the being of the absolute State in the garments of the terminology of freedom.  By his insistence upon popular sovereignty he has become classified as one of the minds who have helped free the civilized world from despotism.”  The philosophical and political worlds treated Rousseau as the voice of liberation, when, in fact, he was the opposite.  He was the defender of the “total State,” the great mastermind of complete and unremitting centralization.  Again, as Nisbet wrote, Rousseau was the ultimate enemy of localism, federalism, and the spirit of community and the ultimate rationalizer of authoritarianism: “The individual renounces the social loyalties of traditional society, surrenders to the state the rights of association which are the fundament of religion, family, and community, and by so doing becomes free for the first time. Herein lies the lure of Rousseau’s philosophy for absolutists and here too is the essence of the confusion of freedom and authority that underlies contemporary totalitarian philosophies.”

In brief, then, the only hope that society has of banishing the plight of social isolation is the restoration of community.  And the only hope that society has of restoring community is to undo the damage done by Rousseau, especially his heirs’ propensity to centralize all authority in the federal state.

In other words, everything about Vivek Murthy’s attempt to identify loneliness and social isolation as serious social crises is noble and welcome.  Nevertheless, everything he proposes to address these problems, indeed, everything someone in his position could offer is almost certainly doomed not merely to fail but to make matters worse.

Our only hope is in ourselves.

Stephen Soukup
Stephen Soukup
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Steve Soukup is the Vice President and Publisher of The Political Forum, an “independent research provider” that delivers research and consulting services to the institutional investment community, with an emphasis on economic, social, political, and geopolitical events that are likely to have an impact on the financial markets in the United States and abroad.