Last year, more than 64,000 people in America died from opioid overdoses. The New York Times has called it the “deadliest drug crisis in American history,” but it’s not the only overdose crisis that America faces. It is just one among others, in which modern American life gets the dosage wrong, so to speak.

The idea that a substance in one dose can save and in another dose can harm has an ancient pedigree. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates distinguishes between two kinds of doctors: those who administer a circumscribed dose of medicine to help their patients reestablish the health they enjoyed before falling ill; and those whose “cure” requires their patients to take medicine indefinitely because reestablishing a healthy, medicine-free condition is impossible. Proper use of medicine, Socrates maintains, is as a supplement taken to cure an ailment, after which patients regain their health. By contrast, as a substitute, medicine no longer cures because patients depend on a regular, and perhaps increasing, dose to stay alive. Here the medicine is a substitute, a stand-in, for their health. Patients live, but death is right around the corner, should they stop taking their medicine. They live a life of “lingering death,” Socrates says. The patient living on substitutes is always living on borrowed time.

An observation from Jean-Jacques Rousseau makes this problem of the substitute clearer. In his “First Discourse,” Rousseau compares ancient warriors, who have few weapons, with “modern scientifically trained soldiers.” The ancient soldiers, he writes, are courageous. The weapons they use, like prostheses, are the supplements to their courage. Modern soldiers have much more powerful weapons; but without courage, they will not know how to use their weapons well—and perhaps will be too frightened to use them at all. Modern soldiers think that they are superior to ancient warriors because their weapons are more powerful—and, in a quantitative sense, that is true. Rousseau’s important insight is that weapons can either be supplements to courage or substitutes for courage. If weapons become substitutes, modern soldiers live on borrowed time—eventually, warriors who know the right use of weapons will overwhelm them. Like Plato’s doctors, warriors must understand that they cannot turn supplements into substitutes without cost.

Thinkers have long wondered about the relationship between supplements and substitutes, but we have lost sight of the distinction in our own day. To bring it up to date, consider the everyday example of the meal and vitamins. We find our vitamins in the supplement section of the grocery store. When we buy vitamins, we buy them with a view to our meals and their occasional deficiencies. The meal is the important thing, to which vitamins must always refer if they are to be used effectively. When vitamins work as a supplement—making us stronger, more alert, or less fatigued—we are tempted to go further, to take more of them. We ponder, in light of their success, whether the source of our newfound powers is the supplement itself, independent of the meal. Why bother with the time-consuming task of becoming a good cook, making a meal, and sitting at the table when a few pills or powders will do the trick? These supplements, we convince ourselves, are the real source of our power. We think that we have miraculously bypassed the labor of making a meal. In fact, the results we get are possible only because our last meal is still with us, a referent to which the supplement is oriented, even if we have lost sight of it.

The strange but euphoric moment after the benefits of the supplement-turned-substitute have kicked in—but before our world collapses because “man cannot live by substitutes alone,” to twist a phrase—is our moment of greatest temptation. What is impossible seems miraculously possible. Lead has turned into gold. Eureka! In that moment, we fall victim to what I’ll call “substitutism.” The opioid addict, in this regard, is merely practicing a different kind of substitutism from Rousseau’s warrior: both are “high” on the prospect that they have cheated the natural order of things, whose fixed law is that when supplements are turned into substitutes, a price must be paid.

Substitutism is the great pathology of American life. Any number of social and cultural developments, all of which seem unrelated, fall within its purview. Nearly everywhere we look, we are living on an unsustainable high, on borrowed time.

Consider the following list of phenomena that catch our attention as curiosities, strike us as serious problems, or bring us inordinate joy. In each case, a supplement has been turned into a substitute. As such, the phenomenon is living on borrowed time. How long the euphoric high can last, no one can say. What we can say is that the substitute must change from gold back to lead, must return to being a mere supplement; and that this reverse alchemy can happen only when we first remember, and then return to, the original meal.

We will consume 500 billion plastic bottles of water per year by 2021. Most of those bottles will end up in landfills, burn in incinerators (if not in smoldering garbage piles), or float in our oceans for generations. Before bottled water, most of us got our water from the faucet, in our homes, without companies monetizing it. Where your water is, your home is, and vice versa. We left our homes on errands and trips, of course; and when we did, we occasionally brought along bottled water as a supplement, knowing that the meal, so to speak, was waiting for us at home. For some time, beverage companies have wanted us to get all the water we need from them, in bottled form. This goal would have been unachievable unless we already felt the temptation to turn supplements into substitutes. When supplements for the meal at home become substitutes, our attention shifts away from the home, and home life withers. Drinking water from a bottle is the substitutism befitting the homeless soul, the soul always “on the go,” euphoric and unbound—the soul that dreams of a tiny house on wheels or of van living (both rapidly developing movements in America, as YouTube confirms). This particular version of substitutism may yet give rise to a grave natural crisis. It seems like a trivial example, but it is sometimes in the trivial things that deeper problems reveal themselves.

“The sexual revolution turned the supplement of having sex within marriage into a substitute not requiring marriage.”

We crave fast food, even as we grow more obese. Whereas plastic water-bottle substitutism produces pollution in the physical environment, fast-food substitutism produces the pollution in our bodies. Nothing so distinctly characterizes man than that his most important moments happen around the table. Without the liturgical recapitulation of the Lord’s Supper, what would have held together Christian churches through the ages? When tensions are high and things get serious, we come to the “bargaining table.” When we want the real scoop from our friends and family, we sit down for some table talk. For family to remain the basic unit of human life, without which civilization cannot survive, its members need to gather around the table for a meal.

Fast food is the supplement to that meal around the table. It holds us together while we are on the go, until we return home and resume the choreography of the meal—preparation, gathering, presentation (perhaps accompanied by prayer), conversation, concluding rituals, cleanup. This home-meal choreography is the referent for fast food, without which fast food cannot be the successful supplement that it is. When the supplement becomes the substitute, however, the choreography is lost from view, and fast food becomes just a mechanical mode of consumption, indulged excessively because the meal’s other associated satisfactions—close friends, family members, gratitude, humor, joy—are absent. When we do not know what will sate us, we will feed excessively. Plato saw this long ago. That is why no effort to count calories will save us from the indulgence we now wear around our bodies. Our hunger is not for calories; it is for the choreographed, liturgical splendor of the meal. Absent that, we grow fatter by the day and wonder why our hunger never retreats.

Marriages produce fewer babies, even as the permutations of having sex preoccupy our minds. From the vantage point of the question “What is necessary for civilization to survive?” sex with a view to childbirth in marriage is the referent, while having sex within the marriage is the supplement. For much of American history, this was the prevailing understanding.

The “high” of the sexual revolution involved turning the supplement of having sex within marriage into a substitute not requiring marriage. The lead weight of marriage, which linked sex to the labor of having and raising children, was turning into the gold of having sex, anywhere and with anyone, without cost and without regard to generation. Once this happened, and generative marriage was no longer the referent, there was no longer a compelling legal ground to confine having sex to men with women. Further, getting pregnant became the collateral damage of having sex, rather than its purpose, which invited not only the legality of abortion but also the subtle encouragement of it. Abortion is, in this view, merely a choice, rather than, say, a moral agony. These are the well-known consequences of the sexual revolution.

What if our fixed law that supplements cannot be turned into substitutes can, in fact, be violated? Wouldn’t that make having sex the new meal, so to speak? If so, wouldn’t we expect that supplements to that meal would soon make their appearance—ones whose referent is having sex with another man or woman but, like fast food, would provide something akin to it without the ordeal and preparation necessary for the meal? Pornography fits into this category, and soon, we’re told, we can expect robotic sex “partners”—the next vitamin for the meal of having sex.

If supplements can be turned into substitutes, why stop there, at the first transmutation that turns lead into gold? Might our substitutes themselves require supplements, which, in turn, become substitutes requiring additional supplements, ad infinitum? Having reached the limits of our imagination with respect to supplements involving fixed gender orientation, why not the supplement involving unfixed and ever-chosen (or never-chosen) gender orientations, which themselves then become the new substitute? Here we discover transgenderism, which would compel us to abandon the male and female pronouns that pertained to the original meal and its supplement, because that quaint arrangement has been wholly superseded.

If the fixed law remains intact that supplements cannot be turned into substitutes without exacting an immense price, then we are living on borrowed time, because generation and having sex within the confines of marriage are the meal and plausible supplement, from which we cannot long depart without dying of hunger. Substitutism in this matter would bring us to a civilizational dead end. Alternatively, if supplements can be turned into substitutes without cost, and these, in turn, invite new supplements, and so on, we should welcome the repudiation of the old meal that poisons us like lead and should live in the light of this new golden age. There is no intermediate alternative; either the fixed law remains intact, or it does not. That is the question lurking in the argument that we are having today about what having sex can legitimately mean. Meanwhile, marriages in the developed world—the region where substitutism is most pervasive—are producing fewer and fewer children.

Hero Images Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo)
Hero Images Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo)

In an important passage in Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote: “Feelings and ideas are renewed, the heart enlarged, and the understanding developed only by the reciprocal actions of men, one upon another.” Tocqueville foresaw, as few others did, the crisis of loneliness and isolation that would haunt America in the distant future, and he thought that the most powerful antidote for this crisis would be face-to-face relations. This impending crisis shadows all that he wrote about civic associations, local governance, federalism, marriage, and religion. From the vantage point of the question “How can democratic liberty be saved and loneliness averted?” face-to-face relations are the meal; and any prosthesis we don to magnify and extend those relations is the supplement.

Facebook has 2 billion monthly active users, and we are getting lonelier by the day. Facebook is precisely such a supplement. The Facebook “friends” we make must have face-to-face friendships as their referent. If, like the courage of Rousseau’s warrior, these actual friendships are strong and durable, Facebook and other social media magnify and extend them, just as the weapons of Rousseau’s warrior magnify and extend his fierceness. As we rely more heavily on the supplement, though, we intimate that we can turn lead into gold by spending nearly all our time online with our social media “friends.” Our supplemental “friends” soon become a substitute, and we even begin to meet our face-to-face friends online, or not at all. In proportion as this happens, our loneliness and isolation increase.

In the case of Facebook “friends,” ample empirical evidence suggests that we are starving from social media. This starvation is peculiar, in that what we are voraciously eating cannot sate us. Therefore, we have more—opioids, vitamins, fast food, sex, or social media. That is why the hunger associated with turning supplements into substitutes is so dangerous; it leads quickly to an overdose. This problem cannot be remedied without establishing wherein the real meal lies. Social-media substitutism is an ever-growing ailment, which increasingly renders us incapable of meeting one another face-to-face, with all that that involves in the way of goodwill, patience, generosity, forbearance, compromise, and risk. Increasingly unable to make real friends, we settle for the scant nourishment that our online “friends” provide and “unfriend” those who disturb our Arcadian slumber. We deplore the growing polarization of our world, go to bed empty inside, and wonder why we hunger as we do.

Brick-and-mortar retailers are struggling because we are buying from Amazon. The household is the center of our life, requiring constant attention and a never-ending flow of materials that we must bring through the front door. Not long ago, we would leave our homes and go shopping at brick-and-mortar retailers to see, touch, hear, and smell what we needed. Going shopping turns out to be an art, which both depends on our senses and develops them. That is why, among other reasons, we do not send our children to the grocery store by themselves. They have not yet learned the art of going shopping. The old saw that a husband provided with a grocery list will nevertheless bring home the wrong items illuminates the point: shopping requires connoisseurship that only practice and the full engagement of our senses can provide. This connoisseurship can be supplemented by online shopping, but for online shopping to work well, its referent must remain actually going shopping.

The evidence for this is what can be called the Best Buy Problem. If we already know what we need, we can order from Amazon without worry; but if we do not, we often have to go to a brick-and-mortar store to see, touch, hear, or smell the item that we think we might need. Brick-and-mortar stores like Best Buy become, in effect, the showrooms for Amazon: we go shopping there, where we apply and further develop our connoisseurship; then we buy online through Amazon, which reaps the profits. Amazon depends on the connoisseurship we develop by going shopping, but it does not incur the cost of assisting us to develop our connoisseurship, as brick-and-mortar stores do. Amazon purports to be a substitute for going shopping, but the real source of its revenue is not its warehouses but rather the referent—the brick-and-mortar stores that Amazon is gradually pricing out of existence. When these stores shutter their doors for good, Amazon will try to play the part of the substitute that it now claims to be; but over time, our connoisseurship will wither, and Amazon will be of less use to us.

The founders of Amazon and Facebook are among the world’s richest men. Before they rose to that height, their companies were supplements: Amazon was the supplement to shopping in brick-and-mortar stores, and Facebook was the supplement to face-to-face friendship. Each company now monetizes our temptation to turn supplements into substitutes. Nevertheless, we must remind ourselves where the root of the problem lies. We want to believe that through online shopping, our households can become a home. We want to believe that through our Facebook “friends,” we can have substantive and enduring associations. Today, Amazon and Facebook are perhaps the best examples of the online substitutism through which we attempt to bypass the fixed order of things. The stock price of the two companies continues to soar in proportion to the “high” that their online substitutism produces—a high that only increases as our hunger grows.

The federal government continues to expand, our social problems grow worse, and our political parties are locked in mortal and impotent opposition. Governmental substitutism is a problem no less pathological. It is obscured because members of both political parties think that they need go no further than declare that they are “pro” or “anti” this or that. They are “pro-government” or “anti-government,” “for” affirmative action or “against” it, and so on. This sort of thinking resolves itself only when one side overpowers the other. No wonder our politics grows uglier. When politics devolves into “pro” and “anti” sloganeering, members of the opposite party are not fellow citizens with whom we disagree; they are the embodiment of dark forces that need to be eliminated so that our own light may shine brightly. Politics today is the venue through which the righteous and pure find their scapegoat.

Tocqueville once again helps us distinguish between the meal, the supplement, and the maladies that arise when supplements becomes substitutes. One axiom of liberal political thought is that society is logically prior to the state, just as the meal is logically prior to the vitamin supplement. Tocqueville also held this view. The meal is to be found in society—in the face-to-face relations that our civic associations, our families, and our religious institutions provide. The state can supplement the meal that we find there, but it cannot become the substitute for it. Tocqueville was not “pro” government or “anti” government, but in Democracy in America, he prophesied that Americans of the future would be tempted to turn the state into a substitute. That is why he wrote: “I praise democracy not for what it does, but for what it causes to be done.” In the hands of everyday citizens working with their neighbors, democratic institutions “spread throughout the body social a restless activity, superabundant force, and energy never found elsewhere.” The state can supplement those institutions, he noted; but it cannot substitute for them without draining this energy. We have clearly not heeded Tocqueville’s counsel.

The state can surely supplement efforts that we ourselves make to heal wounds in society—none deeper than the wound of slavery. But during the last half-century, the Great Society programs inaugurated during Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration have become substitutes for society. Little wonder that the high that Democrats experienced during the Obama administration, which seemed to vindicate governmental substitutism, has yielded to withdrawal symptoms as the Trump administration calls governmental substitutism into question. Neither Obama nor Trump is the real issue, however; what matters is that the state cannot heal the wound of slavery and its aftermath. Everyday citizens have to do that, in the institutions of society. The state can supplement that work but cannot substitute for it.

Governmental substitutism is also the root cause of the metastasis of Title IX, which now dares to establish the protocol between citizens that culminates in sexual relations. A legally binding, state-produced formula will never comprehend relations between men and women—a mystery since before civilizations began commenting on it. In the delicate and never fully adequate institutions of society, which provide an interlocking network of cues about how men and women should comport themselves, we work out an awkward choreography; we learn just enough to reproduce society. Governmental substitutism can’t heal the wounds that emerge from the failure of those institutions, though the state can step in, temporarily, to clear out the poison that keeps the social body from healing. Governmental substitutism, however, is never such a temporary measure; it stands in for the institutions of society and causes them to wither from disuse. That means that we can expect further breakdown in male–female relations.

Adding to these two glaring examples of governmental substitutism, the weaponization of the EPA during the Obama administration (animated by the zero-tolerance “environmentalism” that emerged decades before he took office) provides a third. If our relationship to nature is to be salutary, we must recognize that the meal is stewardship, not “environmentalism.” Stewardship is the connoisseurship that we develop through our living relationship with nature. It emerges through the daily questions that we pose about how we will exercise our dominion over nature and culminates in the judgments that we develop about what and how much we need from nature to compose a household and build a home. The steward with his tools is always already in nature; the “environmentalist” wishes to place himself outside nature, except when he is a tourist. The steward knows that moral immunity is impossible, that mistakes will be made, and that lessons will be learned; the “environmentalist” achieves the appearance of moral immunity by outsourcing life’s dirty tasks—mining, electronics manufacture, etc.—to other nations, so that he can sleep at night. The steward humanizes nature by responsibly drawing from it to fill a household and make a home; the “environmentalist” denaturalizes man by denying him the opportunity to be a steward. Here, the defenders of governmental substitutism believe that citizens are not up to the task. The state has to substitute for capacities that never existed or that once existed but no longer do.

In Democracy in America, Tocqueville wrote that “nothing is more difficult than the art of being free.” He anticipated our ailment: like Plato’s doctor who does not understand the proper use of medicine, the man who believes in governmental substitutism does not believe that the (social) body can be healthy without never-ending intervention. The height of this folly is the assertion that the only way to “save the planet” is through the Paris Agreement or some future equivalent. Advocates get “high” on this governmental substitute for stewardship, suffer withdrawal when anyone casts doubt on the idea that it can save us, and promptly conclude that death is near. Something else is happening here besides frustration and discouragement that the latest science is being ignored.

Let us acknowledge that the 7.6 billion people currently living on the planet place immense pressures on our natural world. Governmental substitutism will not remedy this ailment. If we are not stewards of nature first, no array of governmental constraints and stipulations (set to kick in decades from now) can save the planet. Government can supplement but cannot substitute for stewardship. Similarly, no comprehensive array of governmental constraints and stipulations can heal the wound of slavery and its aftermath or stop the Harvey Weinsteins of the world from emerging in large numbers. Those who believe so are as self-deceived as opioid addicts.

Substitutism is becoming ubiquitous. A longer treatment could include driverless cars, artificial intelligence, online education, fiat currencies, unmanned space missions, DACA, ever-escalating costs of military hardware, and even globalism. In each case, a supplement has already been turned into a substitute or is on the verge of becoming one, to our detriment.

Substitutism is not a problem restricted to one political party, though governmental substitutism has become the cornerstone of the Democratic Party, by virtue of its 100-year embrace of Progressivism. Substitutism runs deeper than politics and animates our actions within it and beyond it. If our country is to heal, we need to identify all its manifestations and ask, in each case, what the referent meal is for which the supplement emerged in the first place. Then we need to declare our allegiance to supplementism rather than to substitutism. Our charge, in short, will be to return, in each case, to the daily bread needed for a sober life. From those fixed-referent meals, we can add supplements not only without harm but also to our advantage. This was the lesson of Plato’s good doctor and of Rousseau’s courageous warrior. It can be our lesson, too.

Top Photo: Today, virtual friendships on Facebook too often take the place of face-to-face interaction. (SHARON SMITH/GETTY IMAGES)


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