“[M]uch of adulthood can be living your childhood from the opposite vantage point: as if that teens/20s process of ‘becoming an adult’ is just a brief sojourn between two kinds of childhood.”
That thought, courtesy of Addison Del Mastro’s invaluable Substack, instantly stuck out to me, and not because it provides intellectual cover for the X-Men action figures that dot my work desk. Del Mastro was referring to the reorientation that home-buying precipitates: young Americans usually grow up in single-family homes, little noticing the seasonal changes and upkeep involved. Then, after the modern maturation of college-apartment-marriage, they hock half their life’s earnings in order to get reacquainted with that familiar roof over head.
From overarching protection back to overarching protection—the circle of suburban life.
Del Mastro housed his observation only in domicile terms. But it rang true in a more philosophical sense, especially after reading a review of a new book on the history of libertarian thought. Titled The Individualists, and authored by Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi, the intellectual chronicle covers the development of libertarianism from the 19th century through today, the materially abundant but spiritually desolate 21st.
I can’t comment on the substance of the book, other than point out that a fine libertarian vade mecum already exists in The Libertarian Reader, composed by David Boaz. But reading the review took me back to my college days, where my brain feasted frequently on prolix libertarian tomes that deployed terms of art such as “diminishing marginal returns,” “negative liberty,” and “THAT VIOLATES THE N.A.P.!!” (All-caps a must.)
During the fall of my junior year, I “read” von Mises’s Socialism while working part-time as a Hyundai dealership detailer. (Read and understand are not synonymous for that bloated work.) The summer after graduation, I conquered Rothbard’s Man, Economy, and State while pocketing a measly internship stipend. Then I spent most of my mid-20s arguing over the finer points of pollution externalities with my peers at a center-right non-profit.
Now that I’m a responsible citizen with all the ‘sponserbilities the Rugrats warned about, my deep-thinking days are over. I no longer try to deduce how Lockean homesteading would apply to a government-funded Mars settlement mission or whether Elon Musk adheres to Reardian ethics. My Chrome browser hasn’t graced Mises.org in years. If Walter Block put out a book in the past eight years, I’ve missed it.
And I can’t say I really miss the stimulated intellection of libertarian thought experiments, such as whether it’s permissible to trespass by clinging to someone’s balcony if you’re falling to your death. Those were fun to consider before watching countless “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse” episodes with my kids melted my brain.
The point is that the “teens/20s” process isn’t just a peak time for taming young impulses, but also for expanding your cerebral horizons. Your gray matter doesn’t fully develop until around 25. (Which is a great argument for raising the voting age—a subject for another piece.) So as you’re looking to settle down, your intellect is supposed to be scaling up—though TikTok and other numbingly addictive apps may stunted that process in Zoomers.
Building what the Germans call Bildung is important because once you’re on the homestead hook, your self-schooling ends. Times of quiet reflection are few and far between. When you’re middle age, you have less cognitive capacity to spare, so you’re more or less set on the Big Questions, like politics, philosophy, religion, or the dead-simple topic of “issues.” The mortgage, the lawn, the bills, the water heater, the HVAC, your seemingly shrinking 401(k), and the kids’ burning questions on heavy matters like why all the castle fixtures dislike Cogsworth overload your neurons enough. And for the unlucky, such as yours truly, there’s still trying to overcompensate for the social gap caused by COVID.
Fashioning your philosophy before life really takes hold provides a necessary gaslight guard against political agenda-pushing. It builds a necessary backstop—a mental pause—when major events transpire, preventing a knee-jerk response. Of course, intransigent ideology can be its own form of blindness—R.V. Young famously defined ideology as “a set of preconceptions about how the world ought to be that displace any genuine perception of the world itself.” But honing your intellectual instincts to not take news just at face value is part of being a responsible citizen.
While I’m well into my 30s, with all my adult concerns like whether the red-breasted robins in my yard will join the grackles and sparrows at my bird feeders, I need no longer devote so much neuro juice to whatever CNN insists is a national outrage. My philosophy, my party, my “side,” have been long established. It’s a bit like being young and thoughtless again—relying on the wisdom of repugnance. Yet that wisdom was formed not by Kids WB Saturday cartoons but by a handful of mid-century Jewish economists. I’ve done as the poet, and shored up my intellectual fragment against the ruins.
Don’t wait until your paunch years to establish your lebensphilosophie. And don’t try to do it sooner than high school—if you’re reading Ayn Rand before the age of ten, your parents deserve a CPS confab. Do the required reading in your prime years. That way the only thing you’ll want to crack open after a long workday, and while the kids are engaged in high-stakes mortal combat, is a beer, not a hefty Hayek volume.