Deciphering American Morality

Reviewed by Jeff Jacoby

One Nation, Two Cultures
by Gertrude Himmelfarb
Knopf, 192 pages.

But if capitalism is not to blame for the moral decay that is so characteristic of Americans today, what is? Here is one possible answer: What paved the way for our contemporary disarray was not the burgeoning of American wealth, but the burgeoning of American government.
The role of civil society in building and enforcing moral norms has been widely discussed in recent years. Through voluntary organizations, particularly religious ones, citizens come to understand and believe in the role they have to play within society. And far from being hamstrung by capitalism, civil society thrives on it.
To begin with, citizens who are not burdened by the heavy taxes of a large welfare state have more money—and usually more time—for supporting voluntary and charitable organizations.
But there is a more fundamental way in which economic freedom and moral virtue go hand in hand. Where markets operate freely and the role of government is sharply circumscribed, the principal way in which a law-abiding citizen acquires wealth is by earning it. And the way one earns wealth in a capitalist system is by serving others. No one can make money in a market economy unless he provides something that other people want. You are rewarded when your customer is rewarded. You benefit yourself by first benefiting others. Which means that the prosperity that tends to characterize market-oriented societies is the result not just of economic forces but of moral ones, too: Honesty, cooperation, trust, sympathy, concern for the needs of others. “For the first time in human history,” Walter Lippmann wrote in 1937, reflecting on the great diffusion of wealth in the Western world since the rise of modern commerce, “men had come upon a way of producing wealth in which the good fortune of others multiplied their own.… It had not occurred to many men before that the Golden Rule was economically sound.”
This is not to say, of course, that capitalism automatically makes men moral, or that honest and compassionate people cannot be found in societies not distinguished by free markets. It is to say that capitalism tends to reinforce the virtues and standards that keep society civil, and to keep selfish and greedy tendencies in check. Since success in a free-market society depends on possessing many of the habits of moral virtue, those habits will usually be encouraged.
But as government expands, making more and more of the decisions previously left to the private sector, the opposite happens. Behavior driven by mutual benefit gives way to behavior driven by politics. The voluntariness of market transactions is replaced by the coercion of government directives. Where capitalism inculcates respect for the property of others, statism—which teaches that wealth may be redistributed by the government—encourages covetousness and resentment. If A has and B doesn’t, the cry goes out for the government to take more from A so that B’s “unmet needs” can be fulfilled.
The bigger government grows, the more it undermines the capitalist ethic of helping yourself by helping others first. Enormous time and treasure is spent on getting the state to change the rules of the game—to enrich some citizens by extracting more from others in the form of taxes, regulations or restrictions.
America’s Victorian values were not undermined by the dramatic growth in industry and commerce that transformed the nation in the last half of the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries. Civil society could assimilate vast new wealth. What it couldn’t assimilate was the dramatic expansion of government which began in the 1930s and reached its peak in a “War on Poverty” that encouraged poor Americans not to work and not to form stable families. What it couldn’t assimilate was the relentless intrusion of state and federal regulations into virtually every aspect of American life. What it couldn’t assimilate was a convoluted tax code that taught taxpayers that honesty is a sucker’s game. Above all, what it couldn’t assimilate was the proliferation of programs that treated Americans like children who cannot be trusted to run their own lives. For the effect of that infantilization was to erode the adult virtues that healthy society depends on: Work, honesty, discipline, fidelity, temperance, thrift, initiative.
Nor is that all. As the welfare state swells, assuming functions that used to be left to individuals and private organizations, communities are weakened. Concern for the well-being of others is dulled. After all, if the government is going to take care of the hungry, why should I feed them? If politicians and bureaucrats are going to take care of every social problem, why should I join a community group or send money to a voluntary agency? A key factor in convincing people to take care of one another is the understanding that their help is not only meritorious but needed: That unless they act, others will suffer. By taking responsibility for the needy, government accustoms the average citizen to thinking that his charity and help are no longer necessary. As a result, he spends less time thinking about the misfortunes of others.
And what is true of individuals is true in the aggregate. All through the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s, as the United States was growing richer and richer, Americans were giving greater and greater proportions of their wealth to philanthropy. “Then, suddenly, sometime during 1964-1965, in the middle of an economic boom, this consistent trend was reversed,” Charles Murray wrote in 1988. “The proportion of wealth being given away began to fall even though wealth continued to increase. The trend continued through the rest of the 1960s, throughout the 1970s, and then suddenly reversed itself again in 1981 (during a period of hard times), when a new administration came to office that once more seemed to be saying: ‘If you don’t do it, nobody will.’”
Yet Himmelfarb shies away from blaming government for the country’s moral and cultural diseases. “The arguments against ‘big government’ are well taken, but they should not translate into arguments against law or government per se,” she cautions. In their eagerness to rein in the “nanny state,” libertarian-minded conservatives “risk belittling, even delegitimizing, the state itself.” Politics may be in disrepute these days, but the state still deserves “the enthusiastic service and loyalty of its citizens.”
But that is just what it does not deserve. It is fine to promote public service, but this cannot mitigate the catastrophe that the state has become. The tremendous expansion of government in recent decades has not only deprived Americans of so much in the way of liberty, self-respect and prosperity. It has pulled the rug out from under the institutions upon which the very virtues that Himmelfarb champions depend. What is badly needed is not for citizens to offer up “enthusiastic service and loyalty” to their government, but for the government to begin practicing self-restraint.
On the other hand, Himmelfarb does make explicit something that too many conservatives often do not: The news is not all bad. If America is plagued by widespread moral disarray, it is also simultaneously undergoing an unmistakable moral and religious revival.
To be sure, the prevailing values in America at the turn of the twenty-first century are those of the old counter-culture. From the mainstreaming of “alternative lifestyles,” to the vulgar and violent offerings on television, to the common fear of appearing “judgmental,” the subversive attitudes of the 1960s have long since achieved respectability. But degeneration is only part of the picture.
Those who lost the culture war have not gone away. They have become the opposition—”the dissident culture,” Himmelfarb calls them. And while they may be heavily outgunned by the elites—academics, journalists, entertainers—”who occupy the commanding heights of the dominant culture,” they are nevertheless beginning to have an effect. The New York Times, she observes, regularly reports on the “explicit sex, language and behavior” being aired on television. College students are showing more interest in religion. As baby-boomers age, many polls suggest, they are turning against the sexual permissiveness of their youth. And while many conservatives have kept themselves busy charting the signs of declining social health—crime, welfare, drug abuse, illegitimacy, promiscuity and so on—Himmelfarb correctly points out that some of these statistics have recently improved. Violent crime is down, fewer people are on welfare, and the rates of out-of-wedlock births, divorce and abortion have stabilized or even declined.
What can be done to build on these improvements? How should the traditionalists and religious conservatives who make up the dissident culture go about remoralizing American society? Here, perhaps unavoidably, One Nation, Two Cultures is at its weakest. Himmelfarb is a historian of civic culture, not an activist or a crusader, and she offers no prescription for curing the social ills from which America suffers. Indeed, she seems not to expect a cure. There will be no mass return to traditional standards, she says, no far-reaching transformation of American society. The best she hopes for is that as the influence of the current revival spreads, “more and more people [will] leave the state of denial in which they have so long taken refuge.” And even about this modest prophecy she is tentative: “Historians,” she cautions, “have not been notably successful in predicting the future.”
Fair enough. The historian’s job is to understand what happened. It is for others to figure out-or attempt to influence-what is going to happen.One Nation, Two Cultures reflects Himmelfarb’s considerable strengths as a scholar: It is balanced, coherent and resolutely non-alarmist. It is a highly useful survey of where the culture wars have brought us. Himmelfarb has done an admirable job of charting how far we have sunk. It will be for other writers, inspired perhaps by her critique, to find a way to unsink us.

Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.

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