But something has changed. The Protestant ethic that ruled my childhood has been downgraded. When I was at university in America in the Sixties, I had friends whose parents were rich. But there was never any question that the children would have to earn their own living. After graduation, and even during the summer holidays, they were expected to find jobs. Eventually they might be absorbed into the family business but even then, they would probably start at the bottom and work their way up. I have been truly shocked to discover that America now has a “trustafarian” generation: trust fund babies who live on what we euphemistically call “private incomes”.
Rich parents no longer demand that their children make their own way. So there is a whole tranche of adults in the United States now who will never work for a living: an idea that would once have been virtually unthinkable. One of the most damaging facts that came to light about John Kennedy when he was running for president was that his father had given him a million dollars so that he could devote all his time to running for political office: an indulgence that was regarded as almost sinful.
With unearned wealth comes guilt and from that comes paternalism: the idea that you are obliged to elect a government that will take responsibility for all those people who are worse off than you – and not just by providing them with opportunities to better themselves in the traditional American way. American voters still want jobs – the mantra of Romney’s campaign still held for half the population – but they are less convinced that work is the only route to salvation. Which is a pity because it remains far and away the best and most permanent route out of poverty. The United States always had its share of poor people but, until recently, when welfare dependency created a permanent underclass, they were not the same people from one decade to another. The whole point was to move up and out of hardship, as wave after wave of newcomers did.
Back in its less sophisticated, less European, days, the United States had actually discovered the formula for extraordinary social vitality, and the miraculous ability to turn people who started with nothing into proud, self-determining citizens. It said to everyone who arrived: “The state only exists to give you the chance to make your own way – to that end it will give you freedom under the rule of law, the right to live your life, to own property and to pursue happiness.” That was the deal.
Perhaps it was inevitable that the country would outgrow that fervent, youthful self-belief and become just another declining society, retreating from the world stage as brash new global powers loomed into view. Then again, after four more years, it might just rediscover its soul.