BOOK REVIEW: Michael Barone, Hard America, Soft America: Competition vs. Coddling and the Battle for the Nation's Future (New York: Crown Forum, 2004). 188 pp., $22.00.
"Soft America lives off the productivity, creativity, and competence of Hard America, and we have the luxury of keeping part of our society Soft only if we keep most of it Hard." This dust jacket excerpt is sure to catch the attention of anyone who has read Atlas Shrugged.
In Hard America, Soft America: Competition vs. Coddling and the Battle for the Nation's Future, Michael Barone argues that there is a divide in American society. Hard America consists of "the parts of American life subject to competition and accountability," and Soft America consists of "the parts of our country where there is little competition and accountability" (p. 13). Barone is a senior writer for U.S. News & World Report, a contributor to Fox News Channel, and the principal co-author of the biannual Almanac of American Politics.
Does Barone's terminology get in the way of his message? "Hard" is commonly understood to mean harsh or unfair, and "soft" to mean humane or forgiving. Barone insists that "Hard" treatment produces more humane results, and he applies the term "Soft" to even grossly unfair situations, such as the treatment of blacks before the civil-rights revolution, as long as competition and accountability are minimal. Perhaps "reality-oriented" and "reality-free" might be more accurate choices to describe the dichotomy Barone wishes to explore, but these terms are far too clunky for a book title. The reader of Hard America, Soft America thus must constantly keep in mind Barone's unconventional, stipulated definitions of "Hard" and "Soft."
While Barone writes, "I do not take the view that all Softness is bad" (p. 15), his arguments are all in favor of Hard America: "A Harder America, it turns out, is a safer, friendlier, more helpful and self-disciplined society. The advocates of Softness wanted to make things easier for ordinary people, to save them from hardship, and to some extent they did. But excessive Softness…turns out to create habits of the heart which make the economy less productive and creative and life nastier and more brutish" (p. 122).
Barone starts with the observation, "For many years I have thought it one of the peculiar features of our country that we seem to produce incompetent eighteen-year-olds but remarkably competent thirty-year-olds" (p. 12). American eighteen-year-olds routinely score lower on standardized tests than their peers in other advanced countries, "but by the time Americans are thirty, they are the most competent people in the world" (p. 13). Why? Barone notes that from ages six to eighteen, Americans live mostly in the Soft America that coddles them—"our schools, seeking to instill self-esteem, ban tag and dodgeball, and promote just about anyone who shows up"—while thirty-year-olds live in the Hard America that "plays for keeps: the private sector fires people when profits fall and the military trains under live fire" (p. 14). By contrast, in most of Europe, schools are Hard and adult life in the welfare state is Soft.
Noting that "no part of our society is all Hard or all Soft" (p. 14), Barone traces in some detail the historical ebb and flow between these two tendencies in American life. In broad outline, the general trend was toward Softness during the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, and toward Hardness during the last third in virtually all areas except education. Here is a brief synopsis.
the 1920s boom and the ensuing Great Depression
World War II
the G.I. Bill of Rights and FHA and VA mortgage subsidies
the largely hidden rise of new small businesses within “Big Unit America” (citing Jane Jacobs’s The Economy of Cities)
the move toward educational rigor, especially in math, science, and foreign languages, following the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957, with the resulting increase in SAT scores to record levels by the mid-1960s
the space program
the abolition of the draft in the early 1970s
the deregulation of transportation, communications, and oil beginning in the late 1970s
the faltering of Big Business and Big Labor in the face of rising competition from imports and from new enterprises led by entrepreneurs such as Bill Gates and Sam Walton
improvements in the allocation of capital, especially to new enterprises, due to the rise of financial entrepreneurs such as Michael Milken and Henry Kravis
Section 401(k) of the Internal Revenue Code and the switch by employers from defined benefit pension plans to 401(k) defined- contribution plans, making individuals more accountable for their own retirement funds
the reorganization of the military and introduction of rapid tempo and disruption into U.S. military doctrine, first employed in the 1991 Gulf War
the crackdown on crime, starting in Rudolph Giuliani’s New York City and radiating outward to other cities in the 1990s
the limitation of welfare in the mid-1990s
the very limited and tentative trend toward more accountability in education
the Progressive Era, led by German-influenced intellectual elites
the New Deal
the rise of Progressive Education to dominance by the 1940s
the Cold War
the rise of “Big Unit America,” an economy with Soft protected niches run by a triumvirate of Big Government, Big Business, and Big Labor, from the New Deal to the late 1970s
segregation and the treatment of blacks before the civil-rights movement
Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, including the expansion of the welfare state via the War on Poverty, the creation of Medicare, and the expansion of Social Security
the softening of the criminal justice system, beginning with the response to race riots in the late 1960s
the unintended creation of Soft niches for blacks through welfare (citing Charles Murray’s Losing Ground) and affirmative action
the reduction of academic rigor starting in the mid-1960s
the Vietnam War and the draft
the counterculture of the late 1960s, culminating in Charles Reich’s The Greening of America
Richard Nixon’s severing the link between the dollar and gold, and imposition of wage-and-price controls in 1971
Barone's categorization of events and trends in 20th-century America as "Hard" and "Soft" is generally consistent with his definitions of these terms. However, there are some notable exceptions. In addition, some of Barone's categorizations—while consistent with his definitions—deserve particular mention.
Barone follows convention in treating the 1920s boom and the ensuing depression as an instance of Hard America. Barone does not deal with contrary views that the Federal Reserve engineered the credit expansion of the 1920s (see Murray Rothbard's America's Great Depression) and that the same institution's credit contraction following the 1929 stock market crash created the Great Depression (see A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960, by Milton Friedman and Anna Jacobson Schwarz). Barone makes no reference to the New Deal's catastrophic prolongation of the depression, mustering only the observation that "Roosevelt's impulse was to encourage not growth but stability" (p. 28).
Barone curiously treats the G.I. Bill and the FHA and VA mortgage programs as "Hardening" because "they subsidized and rewarded only those who did something in return"—such as graduate or make mortgage payments (p. 40). He reaches this result only by contrasting these programs to the Softer out-and-out welfare programs of the 1930s.
When he deals with the issue of race relations, Barone does a good job of showing the applicability of his definitions, in contrast to the common understanding of "hard" and "soft." Blacks lived in a harsh and unfair America through the middle of the century, but one which Barone refuses to call Hard. Rather, he says, "Blacks were consigned to live in a Soft part of America, where there was little accountability…[and] were mostly barred from encountering the rigor of Hard America and from profiting from the achievements so often elicited by that rigor" (p. 49). As the civil-rights movement progressed, many white Americans reacted against the injustices of the past by "Softening many parts of American life—the criminal justice system, welfare programs, schooling, and more" (p. 51). As a result, many blacks still lived in a Soft America, but one that more closely matches the common understanding of the term. Citing Charles Murray's Losing Ground, Barone explains how Soft policies created perverse incentives that trapped many blacks in cycles of welfare dependency and crime. Barone writes: "Racial quotas and preferences are a Soft system: blacks and members of other preferred groups are not being held accountable to the same standards as others. Not being held accountable, they do not achieve as much" (p. 57).
Barone treats the Vietnam War as Soft because its goal was not victory but the avoidance of defeat. Consistent with his definitions and contrary to the common understanding, Barone treats the draft as Soft. In Vietnam, short-service draftees and the rotation of officers undermined motivation and unit cohesion. Barone also observes that "the draft had created a Soft niche for the Army and, to a lesser extent, the other military services; they had not had to do much to compete for enlistments" (p. 129). The first sentence of Hard America, Soft America is a paean to the competence of our young military personnel in Afghanistan and Iraq, yet nowhere does Barone draw the conclusion that the switch to an all-volunteer force is a major cause of the dramatic increase in the competence of our military. The Vietnam-era military was Soft because it was composed of people who were less accountable because they were forced into the military and couldn't wait to get out. The current military is competent and accountable because everyone in it has chosen to be there.
The issue of the draft versus a voluntary military is one instance of a pervasive shortcoming in Hard America, Soft America. Barone describes the different parts of American life that are Hard and Soft, and the incentives they generate, but he does little to explain why they have become that way. What causes one area of life to be "subject to competition and accountability" and another to have "little competition and accountability"? The reason the voluntary military is more competent and accountable than a draftee force, the reason the private sector—sans governmental favoritism in the style of the Big Unit economy—is more competent and accountable, is that freedom allows everyone to compete for a position in which he must provide value to others in order to stay there. Hard America is connected to reality; freedom removes the impediments to that connection. Soft America is disconnected from reality because some imposition on freedom, such as a tax-funded subsidy or a regulation that prohibits entry, impedes the connection to reality.
Nor does Barone go one level deeper to the ideas that underlie Hard America and Soft America, except for his brief reference to the influence of German philosophy on the Progressive Era elites. It is helpful to analyze Hard America and Soft America in terms of David Kelley's trichotomy among the pre-modern, the modern, and the post-modern (see " The Party of Modernity " in the November 2003 Navigator). Post-modernism is most consistently aligned with Soft America, both in terms of providing its philosophical underpinning and in terms of inhabiting the remaining Soft niches, principally in education. Pre-modern America, the America of religion and tradition, is more Hard than Soft, but not because of its religion. One of the most fascinating and telling omissions from Hard America, Soft America is that Barone never mentions religion, even though much of the Hard America he champions is religious. If, as Barone implicitly recognizes, traditional religion cannot form the basis for Hard America, what is its philosophical basis? For the vast majority of the inhabitants of Hard America, there is no philosophical basis, just a day-in, day-out connection with reality. Most people in Hard America are still awaiting a philosophical justification of the way they live their lives.
Lastly, although Barone is clearly a partisan of Hard America, he still offers ritual obeisance to Soft America. Here is the sum total of Barone's argument for Soft America: "I do not take the view that all Softness is bad. We don't want to subject kindergartners to the rigors of the Marine Corps or to leave old people helpless and uncared for. Many Americans seek jobs in Soft America so they will have time for raising their families and participating in community organizations, activities that provide American society with much of its strength and special character. It would be a cruel country that had no Soft niches" (pp. 15-16).
The notion of Marine Corps training for kindergartners is a straw man, totally inconsistent with Barone's concept of Hardness. This idea necessitates dropping the context of what a child is capable of doing at a given stage of development. Nowhere else does Barone drop context in this manner. Secondly, the argument about leaving old people helpless is inconsistent with Barone's enthusiasm for 401(k) plans, as well as his enthusiasm for Social Security privatization in his column in the May 24 U.S. News & World Report, entitled "Ownership society, anyone?" Thirdly, the fact that individuals often seek less demanding or time-consuming jobs so they can devote more time to family or community activities does not mean they inhabit Soft America, "the parts of our country where there is little competition and accountability." A person who prefers more leisure to work still must be accountable on the job, and raising a family is a serious business for which the utmost accountability is required.
Despite these minor shortcomings, Hard America, Soft America is a perceptive analysis of fundamental trends and tendencies in American life. Hopefully, it will lead to a further "Hardening" of American life.
Frank W. Bubb, formerly general counsel for The Sports Authority, is a trustee of The Atlas Society.
This article was originally published in the July/August 2004 issue of Navigator magazine, The Atlas Society precursor to The New Individualist.