Sometime during the years after WW2, the West went from being free states to those based on bureaucratic systems, mostly thanks to education. If you got the right checkmarks on your résumé through school and work, you got ahead, and if not you faced restrictions on your wealth, power, and status.
Where in the old America people could move somewhere, start up a business or farm, and bring themselves to a thriving state through competence, in the new system they needed to deal with government at every level, and the only way to open doors was to go through education and memorize the stuff the system wanted you to know.
The idea of freedom as autonomy went away at that point. To get ahead, even with licensing, you had to play the system game. If you wanted to do so relatively easily, you just marched through those twelve years plus another four to eight of collegiate and graduate education, then got a good income whether you were all that good or not.
On a basic level, this filtered out many of the worst incompetents, but in reality kicked them down to lower levels. The doctor prescribing your drugs might be okay, but the one approving your insurance probably will not be. Similarly legions of bureaucrats hired the mediocre and gave them unprecedented power over the lives of ordinary people.
Education of course consists mostly of breaking the independent thought in people and forcing them to work on the type of things that the system wants, which mainly means that these things cannot subvert the system. Unless you excitedly repeat the dogma of your era, you do not get far, which filters out anything but confirmation bias.
This means that the best people in these societies, the most spirited and independent, therefore most capable of critical thinking, are excluded. Along with them many others are condemned to being seen as lesser because they did not perform or like the meritocracy, which means that they are cast aside.
Without the type of job that meritocracy gifts you, life becomes difficult as costs rise, which is a hallmark of liberal administrations because they tax and spend some heavily. This means that most are caught on a treadmill of forever working and never getting anywhere.
Not surprisingly, deaths of despair have been climbing rapidly since WW2, especially among higher-IQ people:
Building on our earlier research (Case and Deaton 2015), we find that mortality and morbidity among white non-Hispanic Americans in midlife since the turn of the century continued to climb through 2015. Additional increases in drug overdoses, suicides, and alcohol-related liver mortality — particularly among those with a high school degree or less — are responsible for an overall increase in all-cause mortality among whites.
This is what happens when the only way to succeed is through the system and the system has become oriented toward obedience instead of quality. We saw the same thing in the Soviet Union and even in France after the Revolution, where bureaucrats terrorized the citizenry and created a group dedicated to low productivity.
Much like how low-grade alcoholism became normal in Europe before the world wars, modern people seem to exist only in a haze of drugs, alcohol, stimulants, and entertainment. Living life for its own sake has become marginalized, looking quaint now to those who are not immersed in the rat race and the constant struggle for money.
The more we try to fight poverty, the more money is taken from the productive, to the point where they spend fully half of their waking hours dealing with work and red tape in order to simply exist. No one experiences joy in a system like that, so they end up self-destructing however feels right to them.
Even the economists have noticed the high cost of deaths of despair, which is a proxy for the falling viability of not just the economy but the society as a whole:
They found that estimated national costs of self-injury mortality rose by 143% from $0.46 trillion to $1.12 trillion over the 20-year period. Self-injury mortality includes deaths by suicide as well as most non-homicide opioid- and other drug-intoxication deaths, whether intentional or not.
You would think that for all its orientation toward money, government would take more notice. However, it can essentially print money via taxes and its circular Ponzi scheme of spending money on its citizens so that they will spend money propping up the economy in the Keynesian model.
For that reason, it does not need healthy citizens; it needs obedient citizens who will truck off to work, do a lot of activity that produces no real-world result, and then kick up the GDP so that it can take in more Monopoly money in taxes and spend it on more citizens.
Making people into tax cash cows however not just makes daily life miserable but also sabotages their self-esteem. What is the point of existing, if you do it only to keep a system going so that its patriotic propaganda still seems meaningful, even as it replaces you with diversity?
Notice that each time diversity takes a step forward — 1950s, 1960s, 1990s — the self-destruction jumps, causing a loss of some of our most promising citizens to futurelessness and a sense that things can never improve:
At the same time, a long-term perspective reveals that while drug-related deaths have been rising since the late 1950s, the current increase in suicide and alcohol-related deaths began only around 2000, as the opioid crisis ramped up. Suicide and alcohol-related mortality trends track each other well over the past 45 years, and after accounting for the changing age distribution of the US, combined deaths from the two causes were as common in the mid-1970s as today.
Self-reported unhappiness probably has been on the rise since around 1990 (though not all sources agree). That predates the increase in deaths of “despair” by a decade. Moreover, unhappiness likely fell over the 25 years preceding 1990, while deaths of despair rose and then plateaued. And one data source suggests stable levels of unhappiness over the long run.
Each time the society gets more diverse and socialist, people get more despairing, in part because the System is now nearly absolute and there seems to be no way to escape it personally or get rid of it civilizationally. People realize that they exist as energy capsules for the system and they see no future outside of it.
The more things get worse on the streets, the more obedient people become. Everyone fears ending up in the ghetto or without enough money to deal with medical issues or the many expenses required to insure, fund, and maintain a modern technological life.
This seems to hit the children of the wealthy very hard as their parents force them into roles they fear and dislike, especially since these children know enough of how the world works to see why it is moribund:
As you point out, yes, many of these students come from the top 25 percent of household incomes. Depending on where you live, that’s a household income of roughly $130,000 a year. That could be a family with parents who are both teachers; we’re not talking about the 1 percent. We’re talking about upper middle-class families.
In 2019, I wrote an article for The Washington Post about two national policy reports that found these students to be — officially — an at-risk group, meaning they were two to six times more likely to suffer from clinical levels of anxiety, depression, and substance abuse disorder than the average American teen. It felt so counterintuitive that kids who are given so many opportunities would be doing less well — in tangible measures of well-being — than middle-class peers. And what is happening to these kids is happening to all kids throughout the country.
This “never enough” feeling is felt everywhere. I’m not saying resources should be diverted from other demographics to address this issue; these parents and schools are well-resourced and can afford to provide what’s necessary to help their kids.
Parents out of fear push their children to be obedient in education and careers, which in turn makes those children angry and despairing. Where the poorer citizens die of fentanyl, the richer ones burn out and end up alcoholics in dingy outer-city condominiums.
It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out why birthrates are falling. Expenses were passed on to the productive people, which means that they are breeding less because so much of their money goes out in taxes and they see the future not as positive but negative.
This death spiral takes every advanced civilization because none can resist the call of buying off special interests first with rights, then entitlements, and finally with grandiose Utopian political schemes. This way leads to civilization decline and failure, but no one will talk about it lest they lose what they already have.